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History of a Pleasure Seeker [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Richard Mason
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 7 2012
From the acclaimed author of The Drowning People (“A literary sensation” —The New York Times Book Review) and Natural Elements (“A magnum opus” —The New Yorker), an opulent, romantic coming-of-age drama set at the height of Europe’s belle époque, written in the grand tradition with a lightness of touch that is wholly modern and original.
 
The novel opens in Amsterdam at the turn of the last century. It moves to New York at the time of the 1907 financial crisis and proceeds onboard a luxury liner headed for Cape Town.
 
It is about a young man—Piet Barol—with an instinctive appreciation for pleasure and a gift for finding it. Piet’s father is an austere administrator at Holland’s oldest university. His mother, a singing teacher, has died—but not before giving him a thorough grounding in the arts of charm.
 
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 Amsterdam’s grandest canal. As the young man enters this glittering world, he learns its secrets—and soon, quietly, steadily, finds his life transformed as he in turn transforms the lives of those around him.
 
History of a Pleasure Seeker is a brilliantly written portrait of the senses, a novel about pleasure and those who are in search of it; those who embrace it, luxuriate in it, need it; and those who deprive themselves of it as they do those they love. It is a book that will beguile and transport you—to another world, another time, another state of being.

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Review

“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.” 
Edmonton Journal

“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.”
Waterstones.com
 
“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.”
 —Booklist 
 
"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.”
—Marie Claire
 
“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.”
—Vogue
 
“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.”
—Kirkus Reviews
 
“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.”
—Publishers Weekly

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.

 
www.richard-mason.org

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pleasure yes, but altogether more March 31 2012
Format:Hardcover
I enjoyed this immensely, though I began with some apprehension. The publisher's letter and excerpted reviews imply lush wallowing in sensual pleasure, including a great deal of sex, as a young man from the provinces finds a position in a rich Amsterdam household in the first decade of the last century, and apparently seduces everybody in sight. The picaresque genre has its charms, but it requires a very light touch. Well, Richard Mason has that touch, but his novel does not rest on style and sex alone; the blurbs are wrong, or at least incomplete. Piet Barol, the hero, is indeed handsome enough to be desired by both sexes, and talented enough to enter the household of rich hotelier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts as tutor to his son Egbert, and he does indeed begin by conscious use of his personal charm. But before he has actually seduced anybody in the house, he himself is seduced -- not only by the luxurious lifestyle of his employers, but also by their liberality in sharing it with him. Piet is a man of conscience; he feels gratitude and eventually even love. Though both the almost-adult daughters of the family make eyes at him, and Maarten's wife is not immune to his charms, Piet's career in the household is far from a serial sexual romp, and such sex as there is has very little to do with his own pleasure.

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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bildungsroman with plenty of spice Jan. 9 2013
Format:Paperback
A bit of Upstairs-Downstairs, set in Amsterdam during the Belle Epoque, and a hilarious take on a young man’s sexual awakening. Quick, easy read for you ADHD types. The protagonist is a bit shallow and the sex is prolific, but readers shouldn't let that scare them off. It's all in good fun.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  126 reviews
45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern day Sentimental Education...with some twists Jan. 3 2012
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Young and charismatic Piet Barol is a hedonist with a purpose. He's turned pleasure into an art, like a jaunty Epicurean. In 1907, he leaves behind his austere beginnings in South Holland for the splendor of the rich and modern, via employment in a powerful family in Amsterdam. Although raised in lower-middle-class surroundings, his Parisienne mother imparted gentility and musical refinement to Piet before her premature death. His sensuous lips, striking physique, keen blue eyes and cultivated, easy charm ignites passion in others, and he is as resourceful as he is alluring.

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.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly entertaining Jan. 1 2012
By Techie Evan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This novel opens in Amsterdam in 1907 and is divided into two parts, with the first part comprising about two-thirds of the relatively short novel (less than 300 pages).

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!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs either more plot or more romping! April 7 2012
By Jeanette Thomas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The fact that this novel is framed as a sort of journal presumably excuses the author from having to produce a single arcing narrative, which is good because History of a Pleasure Seeker has a decidedly episodic feel.

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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but could have been great Feb. 20 2012
By DelusionalAngel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
First the positive - I did enjoy the writing, the time period, and yup even the overall story. Set in the early 1900s we follow Piet as he attempts to make a life for himself -- not just a life, a good life. We join up with Piet just as he's taking a job with one of thee families in Amsterdam. He's tasked with being a "tutor" for their young son, but really he's expected to be much more than a tutor -- instead the family is hoping for something of a miracle worker, someone who can cure the boy of his spoiled eccentric ways (ways we'd likely call agoraphobia and OCD at the very least today). Piet, using his charming ways and good looks, wins over nearly everyone in the household and seems well on his way to a life well beyond any he could have dreamed of.

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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pleasure yes, but altogether more March 30 2012
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I enjoyed this immensely, though I began with some apprehension. The publisher's letter and excerpted reviews imply lush wallowing in sensual pleasure, including a great deal of sex, as a young man from the provinces finds a position in a rich Amsterdam household in the first decade of the last century, and apparently seduces everybody in sight. The picaresque genre has its charms, but it requires a very light touch. Well, Richard Mason has that touch, but his novel does not rest on style and sex alone; the blurbs are wrong, or at least incomplete. Piet Barol, the hero, is indeed handsome enough to be desired by both sexes, and talented enough to enter the household of rich hotelier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts as tutor to his son Egbert, and he does indeed begin by conscious use of his personal charm. But before he has actually seduced anybody in the house, he himself is seduced -- not only by the luxurious lifestyle of his employers, but also by their liberality in sharing it with him. Piet is a man of conscience; he feels gratitude and eventually even love. Though both the almost-adult daughters of the family make eyes at him, and Maarten's wife is not immune to his charms, Piet's career in the household is far from a serial sexual romp, and such sex as there is has very little to do with his own pleasure.

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. But soon his conscience demands that he address himself to Egbert also, and when Maarten is away for some weeks in New York (counterfactually building the Plaza Hotel), he gets his chance, winning the gratitude and affection of his employers, an affection that he most certainly returns. Piet is no predator, and though his time in the Amsterdam will not necessarily end in glory, he will have given something significant and beautiful to each member of the family.

This is a five-star book for sure, but only 9 on a scale of 10. One minor factor holding me back is that I don't believe that a tutor, sitting in the drawing room and dining at table with the family, would be assigned to sleep on the servants' floor (I certainly wasn't, in a similar position). Yet Piet's friendship with the footman Didier is also essential to the plot, and could not have been achieved in any other way. More serious is the issue of the last quarter of the book, which switches suddenly to an ocean liner en route to Cape Town. This involves a number of new characters and some other variants of erotic attraction. It is well enough done, but moves too rapidly to its resolution, seeming merely like a longish anecdote. But the rest is a true novel, showing the slow unfolding of a fabric of real lives warmed by the charisma of this catalytic figure. The Magritte painting used for the distinguished cover suggests that we never know who Piet really is. But that too is wrong: we do get to know him very well; more importantly, he reveals something in the lives of everyone whom he meets -- and that is high art.

See also my first comment.
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