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!