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.)
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
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.
…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
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
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
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.”