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History of a Pleasure Seeker

History of a Pleasure Seeker

3.6 26
by Richard Mason

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Piet Barol has an instinctive appreciation for pleasure and a gift for finding it. When his mother dies, Piet applies for a job as tutor to the troubled son of Europe's leading hotelier—a child who refuses to leave his family’s mansion on one of Amsterdam’s grandest canals. As Piet enters this glittering world, he learns its secrets and finds his


Piet Barol has an instinctive appreciation for pleasure and a gift for finding it. When his mother dies, Piet applies for a job as tutor to the troubled son of Europe's leading hotelier—a child who refuses to leave his family’s mansion on one of Amsterdam’s grandest canals. As Piet enters this glittering world, he learns its secrets and finds his life transformed.
A brilliantly written portrait of the senses, History of a Pleasure Seeker is an opulent, romantic coming-of-age drama set at the height of Europe’s Belle Époque, written with a lightness of touch that is wholly modern and original.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Terrific. . . . The best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post 
“Mason’s novel is a gorgeous confection. . . . Piet is the rare character—the rare being—whose unfailing charm and luck only make us cheer him on more.” —The New York Times 
 “Just try to resist. . . . A Continental Downton Abbey plus sex, with a dash of Dangerous Liaisons tossed in.” —Seattle Times
“This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Think Balzac but lighter and sexier—an exquisitely laced corset of a novel with a sleek, modern zipper down the side.” —Marie Claire
“Superb. . . . [Mason’s] gorgeous, precise descriptions . . . mirror Amsterdam’s singular combination of material opulence and Calvinist severity. . . . After this auspicious introduction, many readers will be eager for the next volume.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[An] up-close mix of luxury, labor and longing—plus a country house's-worth of burbling romance.” —Los Angeles Times
“One of the best three books of the year.” —The Independent (London)

“A sharply written story of love, money and erotic intrigue pulsing behind the staid canal fronts of nineteenth century Amsterdam. Mason’s hero is amoral but irresistible. I was gripped till the very last page. Thank God there’s a sequel.” —Daisy Goodwin, author of The American Heiress
“If Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had a love child who grew up reading nothing but Edith Wharton and Penthouse Forum—well, that person might be almost as wry, sexy, and knowing a writer as Richard Mason.” —The Boston Globe
“A picaresque novel in the 18th-century tradition of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones. . . . Piet is a charmer.” —The Washington Times
“Piet Barol is a pure pulse of young manhood; not an everyman, but perhaps the fantasy everyman that every man would like to be.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[A] Belle Époque valentine.” —Vogue
“An enthralling, perfectly placed romp that breathes new life into the picaresque genre. . . . Piet Barol . . . looks set to become the star of a whole new series of books.” —The Observer (London)
“Exquisite. . . . History of a Pleasure Seeker is a showcase for [Mason’s] nimble writing, but also extends his storytelling prowess.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“[An] artful evocation of the European Belle Époque.” —The New Yorker
“Mason’s new novel—elegant, upholstered and, for all the sex, well-behaved—is part of a trend . . . for historical novels that seem not only set but written in the past—modern tracings, skillfully done, of old tropes, old forms.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“An elegantly written, sexy novel.” —The Daily Beast
“Edith Wharton would be impressed. . . . Lovely and rich.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Mason presides over History of a Pleasure Seeker like a benign god, rescuing his confused but well-meaning characters when they seem doomed and affectionately watching from a distance as they scramble to make satisfying lives.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“A masterpiece. Like Henry James on Viagra. Not only gripping as hell, but brilliantly arranges that the imagined world of Maarten and Jacobina’s household sits entirely within Amsterdam of the Belle Époque. I thought Piet was wonderfully drawn—roguish and yet wholly sympathetic.” —Alex Preston, author of This Bleeding City

Jonathan Yardley
…the best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons. Mason…has written an unabashed romance, a classic story of a young man who rises from unprepossessing circumstances to win the favor of the rich and prominent…Mason's hand simply gets surer and surer with each new novel. He has an appealingly playful quality that has never been more evident than it is here; he likes all of his characters and mostly gives them what they deserve; he conjures up early-20th-century Amsterdam and, more briefly, New York, with confidence and exceptional descriptive powers. My only regret about History of a Pleasure Seeker…is that it didn't go on for several hundred pages more.
—The Washington Post
John Williams
If the book scares off prudish readers, it's their loss. Mason writes in a beautifully turned, classical style that yields both pleasing phrases and psychological complexity. Piet's relationships with Jacobina, Egbert and Didier, a footman who yearns for him, are genuinely moving.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
The title of Mason’s latest misleads, not only because his story details an interlude in a young man’s life, not a history, but also because this man is less a seeker than a receiver. The operative word, however, is pleasure, which comes in abundance to both the reader and the seductively handsome Piet Barol. The story opens in Amsterdam, 1907, during the belle époque, which Mason evokes with delightful period detail. Piet, at 24, is hired as a tutor for the deeply troubled son of the wealthy Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, a devout Calvinist whose belief in predetermination guides him to a degree that he conceals even from his cherished wife, Jacobina. Their obsessive son, Egbert, is tormented by invisible demons; his suffering adds weight to a tale that is otherwise amusingly, at times stubbornly, lighthearted. No one, including Jacobina or Egbert’s two older sisters, fails to notice Piet’s allure. He is bright, talented, and ambitious, but he trusts those qualities less than he trusts his sexuality, which leads him to many enthusiastic encounters with women, including Jacobina, and men, and helps him slide haplessly into passivity. Mason (Natural Elements) writes with sensuality and humor, but the novel fails to deeply satisfy, especially at its forced and hollow end. Agent: Anderson Literary Management. (Feb.)
Library Journal
What would you do if you were Piet Barol, charismatic, head-turningly handsome, and ambitious for the best things in life yet raised in shabby circumstances and now, after the death of his sophisticated Parisienne mother, stuck with a glum academic father in a shack that has an outhouse? You'd accept Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts's invitation to interview for a job as tutor to young son Egbert, a brilliant pianist so powerfully phobic he cannot leave the house. Since the Vermeulen-Sickertses are among the wealthiest families of early 1900s Amsterdam, Piet is soon savoring the truly elegant life. He handles himself smoothly with the two spoiled Vermeulen-Sickerts daughters and mightily impresses the father, but not the least of his pleasures is his relationship with affection-starved Jacobina. When Piet leaves, only half in triumph, he's managed to heal some family wounds, though it takes him longer to learn which pleasures he should really seek. VERDICT Mason (Natural Elements) writes lushly, and he persuasively gets readers to side with Piet, despite his oily manipulations—for aren't those around him even more obviously self-serving? Highly recommended as an engaging portrait of an individual, a family, and time. [See Prepub Alert, 11/12/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious young raconteur coaxes the passion out of a desiccated family in turn-of-the-century Amsterdam. British novelist Mason's latest (The Drowning People, 2005, etc.) teases out the eroticism in a 19th-century game of cat-and-mouse without succumbing to the clichés that might earn it a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Of his cunning protagonist, Mason writes, "The adventures of adolescence had taught Piet Barol that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men." He adds: "He was old enough to be pragmatic about this advantage, young enough to be immodest..." Piet is far more used to poverty and hardship than he is to the life of luxury in Europe's La Belle Époque. But he is above all ambitious and trained to navigate the world of privilege by his late mother. So it is that Piet infiltrates the household of Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, one of the wealthiest men in Amsterdam. Maarten's sex-starved wife Jacobina hires Piet to tutor their son Egbert, a boy who becomes hysterical outside his own home. Though playing a dangerous game—the image of a man walking a tightrope is threaded through the narrative—Piet loses no time in pursuing all pleasures, be it music, fine food, wealth or the charms of his employer's wife. Throughout the novel Mason displays a sharp eye and a wit to rival Oscar Wilde. A provocative and keenly funny portrait of a rake with an agenda all his own.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.36(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

The adventures of adolescence had taught Piet Barol that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men. He was old enough to be pragmatic about this advantage, young enough to be immodest, and experienced enough to suspect that it might be decisive in this, as in other instances.

As he stepped from the Leiden train into the whirling hustle of the Central Station, several passers-by turned dis- creetly to look at him. He had an open face with amused blue eyes, a confident nose and thick black hair that curled around his ears. He was not much above middling height but he was muscular and well fashioned, with enormous gentle hands that made people wonder how it felt to be caressed by them.

In one of these hands on this cold February morning was an envelope too large for the pockets of his English suit. It contained a copy of his degree certificate and a letter of recommendation from a professor who owed his father a favor. As Piet crossed the traffic on the Prins Hendrikkade, he reaffirmed the decision he had made immediately on receiving Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts’ invitation to inter- view: that he would knock at the front door of the house, like an equal, and not at the servants’ entrance.

The family lived on the grandest stretch of the grandest canal in Amsterdam. Piet knew from the newspapers that Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts dispensed bread to the slum dwellers and had been instrumental in bringing clean drinking water to the city’s poorest districts. He knew he owned the country’s most lavish hotel and a number of similar establishments across Europe. His daughters, Con- stance and Louisa, were familiar to Piet, too, as was their leadership of the “smart young set” and the rumor that they alarmed their mother, Jacobina. Taken together, the family had a reputation for being colorful and modern and very rich: three qualities Piet felt sure would ease the tedium of teaching a spoiled little boy.

He sauntered down the Blauwbergwal and crossed onto the Herengracht Canal. On both sides of the water, houses built for the magnates of the seventeenth century surveyed the world with the serenity that comes from surviving the upheavals of three hundred years unscathed. They were tall but slender, with none of the grandiloquence of the rich men’s houses his mother had shown him in Paris, and yet the fact that they were rich men’s houses was indisputable, and subtly advertised by the profusion of their windows.

Piet turned left, and in his head he was walking away from Leiden, from Herman Barol’s dark little house on the Pieterskerkhof and the life of the university clerk that went with it. For four years Piet had been assisting his father in sanctioning undergraduates who had omitted to pay their library fines or cheated in their exams or been caught in the company of women of ill repute. From these young men he had learned to affect the nonchalant swagger of the rich, but he had no intention of chasing them up forever.

He put a freshly laundered handkerchief over his mouth and inhaled deeply. The canal stank with a virulence for which life in the comparative simplicity of a country town had not prepared him. Within the odor’s complex depths lurked cheese rinds, rotting shoes, rats’ urine, human def- ecation, oil, tar, and a consignment of industrial chemicals that had leaked from a ship in the harbor. The combined effect was choking, but the people who passed him paid no attention to it. He was sure that he, too, would get used to it in time.

He continued more briskly. As the house numbers increased, so did the emphasis of the architecture’s whis- pered message: that people of wealth and distinction lived here. The narrower dwellings, two or three windows across, that dominated the earlier stretches of the canal grew rarer. As he crossed the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, they all but disap- peared. Soon the narrowest house was four windows wide. Which one was theirs? He looked at his watch. He was still twenty minutes early. To avoid being seen, he crossed the canal and continued his walk up the farther side.

The appearance of a house with six windows on its ground floor signaled a further elevation of status and the beginning of the Gilded Curve. He felt a pricking of panic. He had not always been a diligent student and there was little sincerity in the recommendation his professor had given him, a fact that would reveal itself to a sensitive reader. Piet was far cleverer than many who had more to show for their clever- ness, but this was hardly an argument he could advance. He did speak perfect French—his mother Nina had been a Parisienne and his English and German were adequate; but his piano playing was only competent, and the adver- tisement had stressed Egbert Vermeulen-Sickerts’ musical genius and the desirability of a tutor who could match and extend it.

He sat down on a wrought-iron bench between two trees and collected himself. He did not have the best credentials but was wise enough to understand—even at twenty-four— that symbols on paper are not the only grounds on which people make up their minds. A tutor, after all, was more than a servant. The successful candidate would dine with the family, not wait on them, and though the Vermeulen- Sickertses had not specified this requirement, he was sure that people so à la mode would prize amusing conversation. This he was very good at making, having learned the arts of charm at his mother’s knee.

He took out Jacobina’s letter and began to sketch on the back of the envelope the austere, imposing façade of a house opposite him. When he had captured the tricky perspec- tive of water and bricks, he felt calmer and more optimistic. He stood up and walked on; and as the canal curved again he saw the house at number 605.

The possibility that he might soon sleep in one of the rooms on its upper stories made Piet Barol shiver beneath his cashmere coat with its velvet collar, bought secondhand from a well-off student with urgent debts. The house was five windows wide and five stories high, with hundreds of panes of glass that glittered with reflections of canal and sky. The front door was on the first floor, achieved by a handsome double staircase of gray stone, and the façade of small rectangular bricks was relieved of sternness by pretty white stucco scrolls. Despite its size there was nothing showy about it, nothing over-ornamented or insecure.

Piet approved wholeheartedly.

He was crossing the bridge towards it when a man in his late twenties emerged from the servants’ entrance beneath the staircase. He was not well dressed and his suit, which had been bought in slimmer days, was too obviously “Sun- day best.” He looked a little like a young man who had pur- sued Piet doggedly the summer before: dark and slouched, with a drooping chin and an oily nose. Piet had not let that chap have his way, and he did not intend to let this one prevail either. As his competitor made off in the direction of the station, Piet saw that he was slightly out of breath by the time he had gone a hundred yards. The spectacle cheered him.

He straightened his tie and crossed the bridge. As he pre- pared to mount the steps to the front door, the servants’ door opened, and a woman with a severe chin said: “Mr. Barol? We are expecting you. If you’d be so good as to step inside.”

Meet the Author

Award-winning novelist RICHARD MASON was born in South Africa and raised in England. He wrote his first novel The Drowning People the year before he went to Oxford. With the proceeds from the book’s success, he set up the Kay Mason Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children attend the best schools in Cape Town. In 2010 he broadened the KMF’s scope by founding an eco-project in the country’s Eastern Cape. The Lighted Rooms and History of a Pleasure Seeker are the first in a constellation of related novels. The next in the series will follow Piet Barol to South Africa’s Wild Coast. Mason lives between New York, Cape Town and Glasgow, Scotland.


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History of a Pleasure Seeker 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
ccourtland More than 1 year ago
Piet Barol is a classic, seductive, golden boy who comes from modest means, but rises with the help of good looks and some common-sense charm that carries him a long way. The book is divided into two parts, with Piet Barol the focal character that pulls it together. The first half is intriguing and builds as the imperfections, phobias, morals and obstacles of the characters are revealed. Based on this, I would have rated the book higher, but then disappointment occurs when the period with the Vermeulen-Sickerts family is neatly tied up and Piet Barol abandons ship and sets sail to Cape Town. It is too neat and tidy for my taste. All is so quickly forgiven and realized, which gave me pause. However, there is room for a sequel and I'm hoping this is merely a set-up for more to come, but despite Piet's evident talent of the tongue, he left me unsatisfied. The second half takes place on the ship heading to Cape Town. This is a bit rushed and convenient as well. Piet gets himself in some situations, but is always saved or let off the dangle rather easily. This decreases the tension and gives a ho-hum outcome. It's a touch taboo and a bit randy in places, but all in all too light in scandal and risk. I wanted more at stake, or at least a better build up with nail-biting disappointment. History of A Pleasure Seeker floats causally like an imposter at a party no one really cares if you crash.
TiredofGarbage More than 1 year ago
You can see that much research went into this book - research on the city of Amsterday, rich people's toys, what was fashionable in 1907, how the second Plaza Hotel was constructed in New York, sea voyages. It has one interesting plot device - using operatic music to communicate when society forbids communication. For the research and this one device, 2 stars. But sadly, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. It's not for want of the detail, or the many characters, or the detailed descriptions of various sex acts. It's because there is so little real plot, real affection or real pleasure in the characters' lives, and there are so many contradictions. It does not take long to realize that the "pleasure seeker" of the title is really a gigolo, that the main character's true occupation is selling sex for immediate personal gain, starting in the first few pages. What is surprising are all the contradictions in the book, and the unreality that makes the reader wonder if it has veered into magical realism. Contradictions like telling us again and again that Piet, the main character, is ambitious, and planning a future as a businessman - but when he finally makes a career move, he has no real plan, and is readily swayed by the rich people around him. There are so many plot devices that seem fantastical - sudden cures, sudden reconciliations, and strange turns of events that lead nowhere. Finding the dreaded three little words "to be continued" on the last page was worrying - oh no, more words are coming about characters' aimless, unhappy behavior in pursuit of riches - but not much story. If there had been more character development, rather than character repetition - did we need to hear about Piet's parents over and over? - it might have had a chance to be an interesting book. As it is, it is really simply a bodice-ripper (or the male equivalent, is that a singlet-ripper??) featuring soft porn interludes - lots of disrobing and gushing goes on - with no real story. Sadly, not recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this book very much, good adaption of thetime period and class distinction. Well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this novel unique and well-crafted and I will read the sequel, if it comes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a story about a boy so beautiful, everyone wants him, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Boring, boring.
bbb57 More than 1 year ago
I really can't explain why I loved this book, but I absorbed it. It was so vivid, so full of razor sharp emotion, I could not put it down. It is beautifully written, sophisticated and yet vulgar at times. I can only hope that the character of Piet Barol will continue into new "pleasures".
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opinionatedinandfromNYC More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, even if it is a bagatelle...apparently, I hope, one of a series in the further adventures or Piet Barol. It drives you to turn the page to keep up with this most interesting and daring of lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sandiek More than 1 year ago
It is 1907, and Piet Barot has come to Amsterdam to make his fortune. He has applied to be the tutor to the ten year old son of the fabulously wealthy Vermeulen-Sickerts family. Piet is moderately well-educated, can play the piano adequately and can sing. But his real assets are his looks and his ability to charm. His mother was a singer before marrying his father, and raised him to have the manners and knowledge that a wealthy young man would have. Piet is successful in getting the job, and uses it as a station to improve his lot. He charms each member of the family. Maarten is a successful businessman, but one who also made his way to the top and he sees himself in Piet. The two daughters of the family try to play with Piet as they do their suitors but he is able to avoid that trap and instead become their friend. The mother, Jacobina, is attracted to Piet, and he plays on that attraction to solidify his position. Piet is also, after many months, able to free the son from the phobias that have restricted his life. Mason has created a character that will long remain in the reader's mind, as they try to determine if he is an admirable figure or a scoundrel. Piet shows flashes of both, along with a steely determination to live life on his own terms and use all his strengths to make his way in the world. This book is recommended for readers interested in the golden age of Europe and the way the upper class lived.
magggie More than 1 year ago
good read . look forward to the next installment----- I hope
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book move slowly and methodically through the life of the key participant as a tutor to a rich family in Amersterdam. The story of him on the ocean liner to Africa was a bit unreal. Sex scenes with the mother were well done. Actually would have liked more or that. Really disappointed to have book end with "To Be Continued"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pearll More than 1 year ago
Maybe I shouldn't have read it right after my Downton Abbey high? The emphasis in this book ended up being on the sexual proclivities of the main character and his many conquests instead of further developing the fascinating story line of the talented under dog working hard to improve his lot in life.
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