Wednesday, June 20, 2012

REVIEW: History of a Pleasure-Seeker, by Richard Mason

History of a Pleasure-Seeker, by Richard Mason. Published 2012 by Knopf. Literary Fiction.

Piet Bartol is a smart young man trying to make his way in early 20th century Vienna; lower-middle-class in origins but frightfully ambitious, he takes a job as a tutor in the home of a wealthy hotel family, the Vermeulen Sickerts, whose youngest son is obsessive-compulsive and virtually impossible to teach or discipline. Piet's job is to bring the young boy out, but that won't be his primary occupation. That would be ingratiating himself in the family and most particularly with the boy's sexually repressed mother, Jacobina.

At the same time, Piet is navigating household politics, getting to know Jacobina's daughters and fending off a predatory manservant. Piet himself is sort of functionally bisexual, and happy to trade his charms for the occasional favor. But soon enough he grows dissatisfied with life at the Vermeulen Sickerts house and decides to take off for greener pastures. He spends virtually all of his money on a voyage to South Africa, a frontier country with lots of opportunities, and it is on this trip that he meets his true match, a showgirl as ambitious as himself. Could it be that this callow social climber has actually found love?

There are lots of interesting things going on in the book. It's very erotic, and Mason tells the story in prose like whipped cream studded with strawberries. Set in Edwardian-era eastern Europe and featuring a grand house with upstairs-downstairs shenanigans, it's a natural fit for the Downton Abbey fan. More subtle themes include the rise of the middle class and what exactly it takes for a striver like Piet to succeed. Raised by a cultured French mother and a boorish Dutch father, Piet struggles to find his true self, although he doesn't struggle very hard since it's pretty clear which side he favors. But it's a little harder than he thought it would be to leave his father's legacy behind.

That said, don't get the impression that this book is too serious a read. It's not. It's a frothy literary beach book, with lots of sex and scenery and bibelots to keep your mind off the deeper themes for the most part. Highly recommended for the hammock and properly accompanied by a fancy drink sipped through a straw, History of Pleasure Seeker will help you while away the summer in contentment.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.