History of a Pleasure Seeker Paperback – Deckle Edge, Feb 7 2012
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“The book charms as much as its main character does, and should have readers eagerly awaiting the sequel.”
—The Gay and Lesbian Review
“Beautifully observed, perfectly paced, genuinely sexy, and in the end, a terrifically fun read. Mason’s ability to inhabit the inner voices of the servants and those they serve lends the book a rich realism.”
—The Boston Globe
“An engaging picaresque romp . . . funny, touching, and arousing . . . Mason does a stellar job of creating a particular time and place.”
“A masterpiece. Like Henry James on Viagra. Not only gripping, but brilliantly arranges that the imagined world of Maarten and Jacobina’s household sits entirely within Amsterdam of the belle epoque. Piet was wonderfully drawn—rogueish and yet wholly sympathetic.”
—Alex Preston, author of This Bleeding City
“A ripping literary romp about the adventures of a dashing, athletic and sexually ambiguous young man.”
—The Evening Standard
“Hugely accomplished . . . Rich with period detail and characterised by pitch-perfect dialogue and a cast of carefully drawn characters, it explores themes of ambition, fidelity and class, and ratchets up the tension as our young hero walks a knife-edge between social and financial success and total ruin.”
“This bildrungsroman is as smart as it is seductive . . . Readers will savor final scenes aboard the gilded ocean-liner Eugenie and welcome the undercurrent that perhaps Piet’s good fortune isn’t luck at all but a lesson that pleasure exists for those who seek it.”
"As if plucked from a patisserie display case, Mr. Mason’s novel is a gorgeous confection."
—The New York Times
History of a Pleasure Seeker “is the best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons. Mason . . . has written an unabashed romance, a classic . . . There is an almost magical quality to it that had me thoroughly engaged from first page to last . . . Mason 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.”
—The Washington Post
“Mason writes in a beautifully turned, classical style that yields pleasing phrases and psychological complexity… Genuinely moving.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“It’s hard to imagine a better connoisseur of late 19th-century Europe’s gilded delights than Piet Barol, the bisexual hero at the heart of Richard Mason’s witty fourth novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker . . . Think Balzac, but lighter and sexier – an exquisitely laced corset of a novel with a sleek, modern zipper down the side.”
“Richard Mason is the rare novelist who can write a very sexy book that never quite turns prurient . . . This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine. Find of the Month.
“Highly recommended as an engaging portrait of an individual, a family, and time . . . At once windswept historical romance and focused social commentary.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Some of the month’s best fiction . . . An alluring stranger liberates a wealthy Dutch family’s libido in Richard Mason’s Belle Époque Valentine, History of a Pleasure Seeker.”
“Delicious . . . as polished as the Vermeulen-Sickerts' silver, a literary guilty pleasure.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Mason displays a sharp eye and a wit to rival Oscar Wilde.”
“The operative word . . . is pleasure, which comes in abundance to both the reader and the seductively handsome Piet Barol. Mason evokes . . . delightful period detail . . . [and] writes with sensuality and humor.”
About 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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Top Customer Reviews
Egbert, the youngest of the family, suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, doing everything according to a secret agenda based on numbers, sequences, and repetitions. Though a gifted pianist (more so that Piet), he drives his way mechanically through Bach's Preludes and Fugues to placate his mathematical demons. He refuses to go outside. At first Piet neglects him, treating the job as a sinecure while he attempts to build a relationship with the others in the house.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
With confidence and authority, Piet secures a position in the Vermeulen-Sickerts' household as ten-year-old Egbert's private tutor. Egbert's agoraphobia presents a challenge for Piet, who is paid well to teach and to hopefully "cure" him. From the moment he steps foot in their grand house, class distinctions are noted and deftly exploited by the agile and ambitious new tutor.
This promise of the title delivers, and the sex is candid. If you are turned off by explicit sexuality, you may want to reconsider this book. However, Mason writes with a poised pen and a light, poetic touch in this romp of rumps. It's ripe, but not vulgar, and he has a knack for regulating the sexual exuberance. In lesser hands, it would be meretricious and puerile, but he harnesses the narrative's carnal energy with a droll and nutty bite. The bi-curious Piet jettisons the limited definition of heterosexuality. He is a card-carrying lover of women, but he has a sensuous appreciation for the subtle bonds of carefree, liberated men.
This savvy novel of class and manners displays Piet's acumen for blurring divides and situating himself as a "guest" of the house. Barol quickly intuits the vulnerabilities of the domicile, including the servants, and makes an enterprise and métier out of his talent for soothing egos, from the bottom to the top. However, he is not without a nemesis. Daughter Louisa, a strong and independent woman who assesses him as a canny and insouciant opportunist, mistrusts his motives, although her sister Constance is mildly afflicted with his charms.
Maarten's anguish over his son blindly binds him to a severe and persecutory God. His religiosity is so extreme that it has become anathema to intimacy with his wife. There is more at stake here then just a pleasure seeker's desires. The sins of the father have infected the child. The author's understanding of Egbert's illness and its roots in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (although the term isn't named in the book) were penetratingly accurate. What is even more profound is Mason's ability to illustrate a theory that I have always held: that fervent religiosity is also linked to OCD. He shows without telling.
Word has it that Mason intends to continue the adventures of Piet Barol in at least two subsequent books. Knowledge of that mitigates the appearance of a pat and abrupt ending here as the ship sails into South Africa. There is much potential for past liaisons to threaten Piet's future, and for his usual composure to careen as he walks a tightrope--which is an extended metaphor and a prime subtext of the narrative. The novel ends with a promise that pedigree, passion, and ambition will continue to quiver and clash in Piet Barol's pursuit and parlay of pleasure.
In Part One, we see the main character, Piet Barol -- a good looking, recent college graduate with multilingual, musical, and artistic skills -- charming his way to employment with one of Amsterdam's richest, but also socially progressive, families as a live-in tutor to the family's only male child, Egbert, who is 10 years old and smart, but has quite a handful of psychological afflictions, including the fear of stepping out of the house for even just a moment. Barol's job is to further Egbert's education in the languages, music, and arts, as well as to coax him out of the house so that the future heir may partake in family outings.
Barol is first interviewed by Egbert's mother, Jacobina, who takes an immediate liking to -- and lust for -- him. Maarten, Jacobina's religious and now eccentrically celibate husband (the reason for this is explained in the novel), is similarly impressed. Barol gets hired and meets Egbert's beautiful, adult, and unmarried sisters, Constance and Louisa, as well as the household servants, two of whom -- the tall footman Didier and the slightly creepy, older butler Mr. Blok -- develop an immediate homosexual crush on him.
Against this backdrop of palpable sexual tensions that he immediately recognizes as favoring him, Barol intends to keep the cards he holds to himself and to play them adroitly. So it seems that the game is his to lose, but will he succeed or will he stumble?
In Part Two, we find Barol aboard a ship bound for South Africa. Soon after boarding, he realizes he has made a big mistake. Self-pity engulfs him, but he does meet an old ally, as well as new characters who have the potential to become allies or just additional conquests. The choices he makes can mean the difference between getting kicked out of the ship and left stranded in the middle of nowhere where the odds will overwhelmingly be against him, or making it to South Africa as planned where opportunities for pleasure seeking and, perhaps, even wealth building await him.
I thought the first part of the novel held many promising possibilities for interesting character and plot developments, so I was disappointed when the author apparently did not pursue those possibilities.
Had the author ditched the second part of the novel, which I thought merely changed Barol's sex partners and did not substantially add to character or plot development, in favor of using the freed up time and space to add more depth to the characters and color to the plot in what used to be the first part of the novel, the resulting novel might have had more substance and, therefore, appeal to readers like me who are looking for characters worth rooting for.
Sure, the author did a good job transporting me to what Amsterdam and America were like, at least to the super rich, during the earliest years of the twentieth century, and I did get a laugh or two at some of the characters' occasional missteps, silliness, foibles, and/or bravados, and descriptions of the sexual acts were tasteful and some were quite fun and arousing. But overall, I was indifferent to Piet Barol and the fate that awaits him should he fail or succeed at finding the pleasures he seeks, because I have not been given any good reason to care about him. Good for him if he gets rewards or favors for sex, but no boohoo from me if he doesn't.
The novel's ending suggests there might be a sequel or more. Here's hoping for a more fully developed Piet Barol and reasons to root for him!
The first episode, in which our handsome, charismatic hero, Piet Barol, becomes tutor at the home of a well-to-do Dutch family at the turn of the 20th century, is definitely the most complete and entertaining of the episodes. Piet's challenge is to navigate the social and sexual hazards of Amsterdam's upper class while simultaneously liberating his pupil from the horrific grip of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This part of the story is feels fully fleshed out and is rather engaging.
The second episode, in which our hero travels to Cape Town on a luxury liner, is where things start to fall apart. The author seems to believe that providing characters with backstories automatically endows them psychological depth, but despite many dull pages of explication, the characters in this episode remain stubbornly plastic and unconvincing. The plots/themes that are introduced in this section (how will Barol's guilt over what happened in Amsterdam affect him? Will he ever acknowledge Didier's tenderness? Will he ever pay for the consequences of his actions?) feel contrived and uncomfortably unresolved.
And then comes episode three, in which our hero - after hundreds of pages of resisting love and temptation - succumbs to both all at once, for no particular reason, over the span of about 3 pages, to a character who qualifies as "minor" at best, which just feels preposterous. Not sure whether Knopf rushed this to press or whether the author, Richard Mason, just got lazy, but if one of my literature students submitted for grading an ending this sloppy and abrupt, I'd give them and "incomplete" and make them rewrite it.
This is a challenging book to summarize. It's being marketed as a sexual romp but it doesn't really contain enough sex to be a romp (people *think* about sex a great deal, but rarely act on it), nor yet enough plot to justify it as a novel. Parts of it are interesting - especially the first part of the book, which provides some interesting insights to what life was like for upper class Europeans during the turn of the century. But taken as a whole, I can't find a lot of reasons to justify recommending this as worth the investment of time it takes to read it.
It's definitely a book to hide from the kiddies or prudish types due to the numerous sex scenes (straight, gay, married, married to others, you name it -- it's all here). There's also plenty of god talk (blaming, crediting, etc etc) which is always a sure fire way to get some people worked up.
The problem? In the end it just fell flat at developing some of the characters as well as it should have. Yes I realize that this was to be a book about Piet -- that's no excuse to neglect characters that it is introducing us to as so important in this time frame in his life and just failing miserably at going into details when it comes to them while going into such details at such silly things. I found myself feeling like I was missing out on some of their lives or some of their motives, etc far more than I felt the need to read more about Piet... A good thing perhaps in some ways, still it just made me feel, in the end, like something was missing.
The biggest problem that I had with this book was the main character and narrator, Piet Boral, never seems to fully engaged with the characters around him. He's always remote and detached, never emotionally invested. This infects the rest of the narrative; the sensuality of fine food and clandestine encounters with the mistress of the house are described, but they aren't *lived*. I never felt fully invited into the story; I only felt like I was just one more person that Boral was trying to manipulate with a carefully crafted tale.
One of the reasons that Piet Boral seems so distant and unreal is that he's just too much beloved. Every single character he meets, man or woman, seems to fall in love with him - or at the very least, they lust after his 'muscular and well fashioned' body. After a while, the encounters were no longer interesting because they were so very predictable.
The first half of the book, in which Boral lives as a tutor with an upper class family, has its problems but it is far superior to the second half. Boral, having come into some money, buys a ticket on a cruise ship to South Africa so that he can continue his highfalutin' lifestyle. It's a new setting, with new sexual partners, but the plot was dead in the water.
The characters and struggles that I was interested in got very little page time - for example, I would have loved to see more of Egbert, the child who suffered from OCD and couldn't leave the house. It would have been nice to learn more about him and how he had become so troubled, and what his daily life was like. Alternatively, the boy's father made a vow of celibacy after his son was born, and throughout the book suffers major financial blows that he attributes to an angry God. His inner life, though we saw it only in glimpses, was far more interesting that Boral's.
The story just seemed too shallow - not terrible, but not worth the time it took to finish the book.