History of a Pleasure Seeker
It's hard to deny the global impact of the television sensation “Downton Abbey.” Popular in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the series has reignited interest in the glamorous, turbulent years leading up to the First World War. In the UK, that period of rapid modernization and tenuous luxury is called the Edwardian period. In Europe, it's known as the Belle Époque.
This gilded age, this grand world of immense wealth and rapid upheaval, is the one in which Richard Mason has chosen to set his fourth novel, HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER. It's a picaresque, the story of a young man whose love of pleasure doesn't get in the way of his desire for success (and sometimes even helps it along a little).
"With its careful, detailed descriptions of décor, artwork, architecture and fashion, and with its cross-class portrayal of a wealthy household on the cusp of change, HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER will certainly appeal to “Downton Abbey” fans..."
The year is 1907, and the place is the wealthiest avenue in all of Amsterdam. Without much in the way of qualifications or pedagogical aspirations, young Piet Barol is on his way to interview for the position of tutor to the son of Maarten and Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts. The boy, 10-year-old Egbert, is agoraphobic --- his brilliant talent at the piano is a mask for his terror of offending the Shadows that haunt his every thought.
Fortunately for Barol, his charming personality, excellent manners and flirtatious ways with Jacobina more than make up for any deficiencies in his resume, and he gets the job. Maarten and Jacobina's two eligible and accomplished daughters --- particularly the modern and ambitious Louisa, who wants to be a fashion designer --- think they see through the newcomer in their household, but Barol thoroughly impresses the girls' parents. Jacobina, in particular, is more than impressed with Barol's talents in the bedroom, once she starts up an intimate relationship with him that compensates for her sexless relationship with her husband.
Barol successfully bridges the gap between the servants and the masters in the Vermeulen-Sickerts’s household, easily gaining admirers (and inciting more than a little lust) wherever he goes. It's clear, though, that this assignment is merely the first step in Barol's ascent in the world, and before long he's aspiring to greater heights than this grand avenue can provide. But can he cure Egbert of his phobias before the house of cards he has built comes crashing down around him?
With its careful, detailed descriptions of décor, artwork, architecture and fashion, and with its cross-class portrayal of a wealthy household on the cusp of change, HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER will certainly appeal to “Downton Abbey” fans who value many of those same aspects in their beloved television show. The novel, however, turns up the heat on the Belle Époque, as Piet inspires sexual desire --- and pursues his own pleasure --- both upstairs and downstairs, and in acquaintances of both sexes. Mason writes almost as colorfully about music as he does about sex, and he shows Barol cleverly using music both to convey hidden messages and to seduce.
HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER is clearly set up to have a sequel, as Barol ends the novel on the cusp of an entirely different life, on a different continent (and with the words "To Be Continued…"). The rapid change of scene that happens two-thirds of the way through the book may disappoint some readers who have become fond of Barol's Dutch employers and want to spend more time with them. But they'll also be eager to discover where this pleasure seeker's pursuits lead next.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 9, 2012