Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

I have not yet read Fifty Shade of Grey despite the fact that it seems to have captured the imaginations of housewives far and wide (and I use the term housewife without sarcasm as I certainly fit the description myself). It's not because I'm turned off by the idea of sex, graphic or otherwise in books, it's because the plot, such as it is, doesn't appeal to me. Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker, on the other hand, has some quite risque scenes in it but it also has a story line that piqued my interest in ways that the other did not.

At the start of the twentieth century in Amsterdam, Piet Barol contrives to get himself hired as the private tutor to a young agoraphobic boy. He is not the most qualified for the job but Piet has something special going for him: he's attractive, charming, and completely appealing to both men and woman. Piet is a hedonist who gives as much pleasure as he takes. He determines that he's not going to push his young charge to overcome his agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder until Egbert himself shows that he's ready to tackle his fears. In the meantime, he has to fend off the advances of one of the Vermeulen-Sickerts' daughters, he captivates Egbert's mother Jacobina while teaching her to value herself as a sexual being, and he gives Vermeulen-Sickerts father Maarten the joy and appreciation he craves despite his biblical denial of self.

The interpersonal interactions are fantastic here but what really shines is the critique of class distinction. The gulf between upstairs and downstairs is wide but not unbridgeable, as Piet shows through his accumulation of great appreciation for the sensuality of good food, fine furnishings, and other assorted trappings of wealth coupled with his savvy in negotiating belowstairs and captivating the help equally as much as he does the wealthy Vermeulen-Sickerts. There is a real skewering here, biting social satire coupled with a blush-inducing, racy, graphic sexuality and appreciation for carnality.

But Piet's charmed interlude with the Vermeulen-Sickerts' must come to an end and the second part of the novel finds him heading to South Africa via ship and continuing his irrepressible social climbing, still looking to make his fortune and secure the good life for himself. Life on-board the ship again highlights the huge gap between the fantastically wealthy and everyone else and Piet's natural charm and sexual appeal works on his behalf as the bridge between the two worlds once again.

The book feels very episodic and the two parts, while similar in theme, don't hang together particularly well. Piet is not exactly a snake-oil salesman, in other words, he's genuinely likable enough, but I as a reader didn't feel as attracted to him as a character as his fellow characters did. And no matter how pleasurable a read this was (and it was the literary equivalent of a meringue), the ending made me want to throw the book against a wall. Nothing in this world makes me seethe more than the three unexpected little words this book ended with: "To be continued." Had there been more of a resolution, I'd have been perfectly happy reading the next in the series. As it is, I'll have to see if my curiousity about Piet's further adventures trumps my pique.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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