on 25 October 2001
This novel failed at first to grasp me. I had started it once and ditched it. Haven't we seen the homes and lives of middle England, circa 1920, portrayed a thousand times? On a weekend break in the country, I tried again. I had been too hasty the first time. Lehmann's prose is captivating. She describes Olivia's first dance, her attempted elegance in a poorly assembled gown, her own and her sister's disappointment with the 'suitable young man' fetched up from somewhere to accompany them. The agony of appearing in a room full of strangers, relying on a lacklustre escort was particularly appropriate as I too attended a dance the weekend I read the book. I too had to face a room of strangers, and eighty years on, the same pain is still palpable in that situation.. Lehmann's writing becomes subtle and arresting. Scene after scene is written with truly fine comedy entwined with delicate reflections on adolescence, class and love . I howled with laughter, then blinked back tears at a poignant description of a blind man. Olivia doesn't enjoy as immediately successful an evening as her sister Kate but her 'Invitation to the Waltz 'of life is much more arresting.
Perhaps Lehmann borrowed a little too closely from Jane Austen's 'Mr Collins' in her portrait of the stuffy escort. ( Is there a bibliography of comic literary clergymen somewhere?). Perhaps the elision from comedy to tragedy played a little too obviously with the reader's emotions, but these reservations are curmudgeonly. The book is a toast to a young woman's debut into the world written with expert comic observation, and consummate prose. Delicious. Please read it!