Twenty-four-year-old Piet Barol is handsome, seductive, manipulative — and poor. After his mother’s death, Piet uses her many lessons and attempts to elevate him beyond his meager circumstances to seek wealth and employment far from his sad, boring past.
In belle époque Amsterdam, Piet interviews for a position teaching the talented but strange child of Maarten and Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts. Young Egbert, one of the family’s three children and the only son, is haunted by invisible demons demanding he put himself through grueling paces like playing the same song on piano hundreds of times. Piet is determined to help the child — if only to continue living in the lap of luxury at his wealthy employers’ home.
Ruled by lust and a desire to ascend to the privileged class, Piet begins to change the Vermeulen-Sickerts’ lives in swift, tangible ways. Long kept at arm’s length by her husband, Jacobina is desperate for attention — and companionship. Louisa and Constance Vermeulen-Sickerts, sisters and polar opposites, exercise a due wariness regarding Piet’s infiltration but have plans of their own. And Maarten, the family patriarch, is so desperate to “cure” his only son that he’s willing to look beyond the obvious. Is Piet pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes — or is he merely another pleasure seeker in a vast, complicated game?
Richard Mason’s History Of A Pleasure Seeker is a lush, sensuous and finely-wrought story of how, through charisma and seduction, one man is able to change an entire family and free them from their stuffy, well-made cages. In return, Piet is able to leave behind his poverty-stricken youth and seek all the pleasures to which he feels entitled as a self-made man.
I was initially attracted to this book because of a line drawn between it and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite classics. After finishing History Of A Pleasure Seeker, I can see the parallels between the two. Though our setting here is The Netherlands, Piet functions as a sort of Gatsby-like anti-hero. I took turns loving and despising him, wondering if he possibly felt for the Vermeulen-Sickerts family or merely sought to snap off a piece of their prestige. That feeling morphed many times over, and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about Piet. Other than, you know . . . seduced.
On one hand, he’s a selfish devil accustomed to getting what he wants — and when he wants it. Whether a lusty embrace comes from a man or woman seems to be of little consequence, and he’s already daydreaming about receiving satisfaction from a fellow employee at the Vermeulen-Sickerts’ residence just hours after arriving. I don’t think this was so much a bisexual tendency as a rampant desire to be pleasured when he felt the urge — regardless of who was there to satisfy him. The true nature of his sexuality didn’t seem to be of much consequence outside of what it asked him to do for others, and what he asked others to do for him. As you’d expect from a book with such a title, History Of A Pleasure Seeker is really all about Piet’s pleasure.
And it’s hard not to be seduced by Piet. On the surface, he’s a talented pianist, an educated dreamer, a reliable employee. He’s described as devastatingly handsome and all too aware of what his attractive physique can afford him from others. (I pictured him as a Henry Cavill type, at right.) Whether everything is just an elaborate scheme to buy himself fortune, I’m not sure — but I’m leaning toward not. At his heart, I don’t think Piet was a cold and calculated gold digger. I think he was just a little tortured and entitled.
Though Piet is our central character, he isn’t the only one craving release. Louisa and Constance Vermeulen-Sickerts want to be freed of the confines barring women from doing much beyond finding a good husband, becoming a good mother. Bright and devastatingly sarcastic, Louisa was a favorite character of mine; her sassy observations and unwillingness to become a pawn in anyone’s game made me smile. Little Egbert desperately wants to be freed of his inner demons, and Maarten craves only the security to take care of his family in the manner to which they’ve been accustomed. And Jacobina? She just wants to be loved.
History Of A Pleasure Seeker was a fast, intoxicating read — and though my interest waned slightly as Piet moved on from Amsterdam, I was very invested in the plot and characters. The novel features several scenes steamy enough to make my cheeks flush, but I wasn’t bothered by the erotic and hypnotic nature of the story. If you’re easily offended by sexual content, I’d suggest tiptoeing around this one — but those seeking a raucous, entertaining and sexy story of one social climber pawing his way to the top will find Richard Mason’s novel goes down a treat.
4.5 out of 5!