Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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 epoque, 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." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"An engaging picaresque romp...funny, touching, and arousing...Mason does a stellar job of creating a particular time and place." Edmonton Journal
"Highly recommended as an engaging portrait of an individual, a family, and time." Library Journal, starred
"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 Epoque 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
An opulent, romantic novel, written in the grand manner, set at the height of Europe's belle epoque, about a handsome young man in his mid-twenties — a golden boy who secures a position as a tutor in the household of one of the most prominent bourgeois families in Amsterdam and his entry into a world of moneyed glamour and dangerous temptations.
Piet Barol, blue-eyed, dark-haired, seductive and seductively charged, enters this magnificent world, and inexorably learns the hidden truths of this vastly rich, secretive family and, through the course of the novel, is profoundly transformed as his charm and sexual pull transform each of their lives. In the heady exhilaration of this new world, amid delights and temptations that Piet has only dreamed of, he discovers that some of the intimacies he has cultivated are dangerous liaisons indeed.... By the author of The Drowning People .
About the Author
Richard Mason was born in South Africa in 1978 and lives in New York City. His first novel, The Drowning People,
published when he was twenty-one and still a student at Oxford, sold more than a million copies worldwide and won Italy’s Grinzane Cavour Prize for Best First Novel. He is also the author of Natural Elements,
which was chosen by The Washington Post
as one of the best books of 2009 and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Sunday Times Literary Award. History of a Pleasure Seeker
is his fourth novel. In 1999, with Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mason started the Kay Mason Foundation (www.kaymasonfoundation.org), which helps disadvantaged South Africans receive quality education. Mason received the Inyathelo Merit Award for Philanthropy in 2010.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of History of a Pleasure Seeker, the elegant, beguiling, and erotic new novel by Richard Mason, acclaimed author of The Drowning People and Natural Elements.
1. Who is the “pleasure seeker” of the title? Who else might that describe?
2. How does Maarten’s repudiation of pleasure define his character?
3. What is the metaphor of the tightrope?
4. How do the characters’ different religious beliefs shape the events of the story?
5. “Like his father, Egbert was deeply private about his interior afflictions” (page 40). Are there other ways in which father and son are alike? How are they different?
6. Throughout the novel, Mason calls our attention to shared character traits. What do Egbert and Piet share? Piet and Maarten?
7. What role does guilt play in Piet’s actions?
8. The voices Egbert hears are guided by color: “toying with primary colors was an offense that merited prolonged punishment” (page 100). Why do you think color affects Egbert this way? How does Mason use color with other characters?
9. What is the significance of the horseback-riding scene on pages 109–14? Why does it prompt Piet to carry Egbert outside?
10. How does having money—or not having it—affect the characters’ behavior? What about the other members of the household staff? In the terms of this novel, what is the difference between money and class?
11. Why is Piet willing to risk everything to see Jacobina? Is he in love with her?
12. When Louisa seeks her father’s help in opening a shop, he tells her: “You must marry a man with talent and ambition, whose interests you may serve as your mother has served mine. That is the way in which a woman may succeed” (page 153). Is this true for all the women in the novel? How are things changing with the times?
13. What finally gives Egbert the strength to go outside on his own? What role does music play in the decision (pages 154–5)?
14. When Piet turns down Louisa’s proposal, what is the result? How does it influence the novel’s denouement?
15. Why doesn’t the novel end when Piet leaves the Vermeulen-Sickerts household? How might you have imagined Piet’s next steps, if Mason hadn’t supplied them?
16. How does Piet’s interlude with his father change your understanding of his character? How did his late mother shape his behavior?
17. What role does Didier play in the novel’s ending? What impact might a different response from him have had on Piet’s future?
18. What has changed within Piet, that he resolves to tell the truth to Stacey?