four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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0

738811.pngHistory of a Pleasure Seeker is South African-born Richard Mason’s fourth novel. He published his first novel, the acclaimed The Drowning People, in 1999, when he was just 19, before he attended Oxford. He used profits from the book’s sales of more than a million copies to start a foundation that helps underprivileged South African children.

The Story: Born in a low-rent section of early 20th-century Amsterdam, young Piet Barol longs for the better things in life. He sees his opportunity in a job opening as tutor to an emotionally disturbed boy with a wealthy hotelier father. Interviewed by the businessman’s sexually frustrated, beautiful wife, the handsome and charming Barol scores the job (and more) and moves into the family’s mansion. While Barol’s value system leaves something to be desired, his attempts to give and receive pleasure are sincere—and flexible. He charms his boss’s two eligible daughters, as well as the residence’s young, dashing footman. The only thing that threatens to topple his new lifestyle is his lack of progress with his young charge.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307599476

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Richard Mason’s fourth novel is the best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons. … There is an almost magical quality to all this that had me thoroughly engaged from first page to last." Jonathan Yardley

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"I found this book delicious. Sure, the setting and plot may be borrowed from a stack of paperback romances, but in Mason’s hands, the material is transformed. … By frequently moving between the characters’ points of view, hopping from one to another as they talk or dance, Mason builds tension." Carolyn Kellogg

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"If the book scares off prudish readers, it’s their loss. Mason writes in a beautifully turned, classical style that yields both pleasing phrases and psychological complexity." John Williams

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Just try to resist Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker. … This book, with its Upstairs, Downstairs setting, could be not unfairly described as a Continental Downton Abbey plus sex, with a dash of Dangerous Liaisons tossed in." Moira Macdonald

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Piet Barol, the young protagonist of Richard Mason’s thoroughly engaging fourth novel, possesses such intense social ambition that even Edith Wharton would be impressed. … Mason’s prose is lovely and rich, but the plot of History of a Pleasure Seeker—which goes to New York City during the financial crisis of 1907 as well as Cape Town, South Africa—loses a bit of oomph in the final chapters." Sara Vilkomerson

Critical Summary

History of a Pleasure Seeker illuminates the chasms between the lives of the wealthy and those of their servants in Europe at the turn of 20th century, and as most critics noted, the novel comes out at a time when the American public is obsessed with similar topics. Reviewers compared the novel’s themes to the popular PBS series Downton Abbey and lauded Mason’s details of the Upstairs, Downstairs setting, as well as his formal, elegant prose. Although a pleasure-seeking, ambitious seducer is not new in literature, Mason takes his protagonist’s prowess to a new and dizzying height. One critic felt that the story falls flat toward the end, and others pointed out that the conclusion seems improbable, but most reviewers loved this psychologically rich, compelling story and couldn’t wait for part two of Barol’s life journey.