Piet Barol is the eponymous hero of Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker, a novel set in belle époque Amsterdam. From his French mother (now deceased), he learned charm and gentility; from his dour Dutch father, not much. The handsome, sexually adventurous Piet is eager to leave provincial Holland behind, for he knows that he is made for better things: he's well-educated, fluent in several languages and musically gifted, so he applies for a job as tutor to the young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam.
The lady of the house, Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts, is utterly charmed by Piet and his piano playing. "He should play her something slow and semtimental," he muses, "and it came to him that the second nocturne of Chopin fulfilled all his criteria." He gets the job. Jacobina has two daughters, Louisa and Constance, both of marriageable age, and an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive eight-year-old son, Egbert. It is Piet's job to make a "real boy" of Egbert where other tutors have failed. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the family, Maarten, made a vow to God that if He would send him a son, he would never have carnal relations again; Jacobina was not consulted. It's a set-up made in heaven, or thereabouts, for the randy young tutor.
He courts the family with music and charisma, draws elegant pictures for Maarten of his collections and does, indeed, get Egbert to leave the house. In the fullness of time, arrangements are made and unmade and Piet leaves Amsterdam in a hurry. Despite the circumstances of his departure, he leaves the household in a happier state than he found it.
He departs on a cruise for Cape Town, not knowing what he will do when he gets there. Always the opportunist, he ingratiates himself to a wealthy man seeking his own pleasure, then gravitates toward Stacey, a shipboard chanteuse as self-interested as himself, "on the lookout for an alternative insurance against the indignities of middle age in the demimonde." (Mason’s rendition of motivation, however self-serving, is one of the many delectable qualities in his well-wrought tale.)
The style and vocabulary are perfect for the novel's setting and the time period, and Mason's use of music sets exactly the right mood for what he wants to accomplish. The well-drawn characters of servants, daughters and friends combine to make this a thoroughly enjoyable book. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A charming young man takes up residence with a wealthy Amsterdam family as a tutor to their son, indulging in erotic adventures before moving on to a bright future (a sequel is in the works).