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It’s a challenge keeping your critical skills up when reviewing a book like History of a Pleasure Seeker (Knopf), and I’m not saying that just because the novel’s author, Richard Mason, is attractive and everyone at Knopf knows it (my hardback review copy came complete with an 8½” x 11” photograph!). I also admit the challenge here because History of a Pleasure Seeker—Mason’s fourth novel at the age of 34—is extremely well-written, extremely well-paced and so intricately plotted that it’s no surprise to learn that Mason clearly outlines his novels before he even begins to haggle with his first sentence. And if all that isn’t enough to make you hate this young Oxford graduate and nonprofit founder, you should also know that History of a Pleasure Seeker is a historical novel mainly set in Amsterdam with a brief foray into New York City—all during the Belle Époque.
At a recent reading Mason gave at The Strand Book Store’s lovely Rare Book Room, Mason told his adoring and, I must say, really quite attractive audience that he conceived of the book as “an adventure story for adults,” which is no doubt one reason the book contains sex and, oh, I dunno, a je ne sais qua kind of all-around sexiness. Readers who care to can visit a website where they can hear some of the romantic classical music that is integral to the plot. Mason’s reading at The Strand is the same place where I learned that he meticulously outlines.
Young Piet Barol is the hero of The History of a Pleasure Seeker. “The adventures of adolescence,” an omniscient narrator begins the rollicking tale, “had taught [Piet] that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men.” Besides being handsome, Piet is in possession of a long-term if somewhat naïve plan to escape his impoverished fate. Working towards that goal, Piet secures a position as a tutor at the Vermuelen-Sickerts mansion. Upstairs at the mansion, we have the family’s patriarch, Maarten; Maarten’s beautiful wife Jacobina; their respectively beautiful and clever daughters, Constance and Louisa, both on the verge of womanhood, and their agoraphobic adolescent brother, Egbert. In the proverbial downstairs, we have the long suffering staff, including Didier, a dashing domestic who turns out to be one of the many men attracted to Piet. Put this cast characters all together and what you get is the kind of upstairs/downstairs drama we all love so much on Channel 13.
We also get a touch of the gothic: Egbert is agoraphobic because he’s haunted by figments of his own precocious imagination. Maarten himself, who is more like his son Egbert that he’d care to admit, is also superstitious and has made a promise to God to abstain from his marital duties with Jacobina in exchange for God’s favor. Maarten fails, however, to communicate this impediment to Jacobina, leaving her frustrated and providing a carnal point of entry—“entry” shall we say—for the young, hung Piet.
But keep our critical skills up we must, for all reviews that aren’t mixed should be, and one of the problems with History of a Pleasure Seeker is Mason’s desire to write an adventure. The brisk pace takes too much of the “literary” out of the novel, particularly when we get to Piet’s adventures aboard a luxury liner bound for New York City —and that’s too bad because there really is much that’s rich, much that’s wicked and satiric, and a whole lot more that is literary about History of a Pleasure Seeker. Another problem is that all of Mason’s characters are essentially good and, after a while, that goodness grows saccharine. When one of the Vermuelen-Sickerts’ servants steals clothes and money from the family and goes MIA, we are made to understand that she has good reason (poverty, a long history of suffering at the whims of rich people). Piet, too, may be self-centered. He may even be a foolish “risk-taker” (a strangely contemporary phrase, don’t you think?) but he is not without his ultimately redeeming qualities. Such characterization bespeaks, I think, Mason’s philanthropy. Philanthropy, after all, necessarily begins and ends with the supposition that all people are essentially good or, at the very least, the supposition that all people are essentially deserving. The only other problem I’ll mention here is that characters cry and weep a lot, not only in History of a Pleasure Seeker but also in Mason’s previous novel, Natural Elements. It’s not that a better person than myself might not cry given the same circumstances. It’s only that once you add up all the crying scenes the teary sum suggests a flare for the melodramatic on the author’s part. Then again, Mason also reported at The Strand that he’s working on a deal to serialize the novel for TV, so I can only say I wish him luck and hope that—if and when he gets to laugh the last laugh all the way to the bank—he doesn’t forget about me, little ’ol adoring, little ’ol deserving me.
History of a Pleasure Seeker
By Richard Mason