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BOOK REVIEW

Between floors in an upstairs, downstairs era

Richard Mason's new novel follows the efforts of a tutor trying to rise above his station in Amsterdam in 1907.

February 12, 2012|Carolyn Kellogg
  • "Pleasure Seeker" is Richard Masons fourth novel.
"Pleasure Seeker" is Richard Masons fourth novel. (Michael Lionstar / Knopf )

History of

a Pleasure Seeker

A Novel

Richard Mason

Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $25.95

--

Richard Mason's "History of a Pleasure Seeker" has landed at just the right time. Americans, thanks to PBS' "Downton Abbey," are now hip to the upstairs-downstairs issues faced by great European households at the dawn of the 20th century. The up-close mix of luxury, labor and longing -- plus a country house's-worth of burbling romance -- are condensed into the handsome and ambitious Piet Barol.

Barol arrives in Amsterdam, in 1907, with a university degree and a cold past that he's determined to leave behind. He's got one shot: to be hired as an academic and musical tutor to Egbert, the son of wealthy financier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, who conveniently has two attractive, eligible daughters. Interviewed privately by the financier's wife, Jacobina, Barol is asked to show off his piano skills; after choosing "Carmen" he "drenched his quarry in sweet, permissive magic." All they exchange are significant glances -- the Victorian era has only just ended -- yet it's enough to secure him the job.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 12, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Book review: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, a review of the novel "History of a Pleasure Seeker" says that the book's author, Richard Mason, is not yet 25 years old. In fact, Mason is 33. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 19, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"History of a Pleasure Seeker": A Feb. 12 review of the novel "History of a Pleasure Seeker" says that the book's author, Richard Mason, is not yet 25 years old. Mason is 33.

I know, I know: It sounds like bodice-ripping folderol. I have zero patience for that kind of thing, but 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.

Mason is better known in England, where his novel "The Drowning People," published when he was just 19, was a sensation that cast him into the cultural firmament. Now, not yet 25, he's on his fourth novel, and it's as polished as the Vermeulen-Sickerts' silver, a literary guilty pleasure.

As tutor, Barol finds a place between upstairs and down. He lodges under the eaves with two male servants, but he dines with the family and spends his leisure time with them. Proximity becomes, to him, like destiny: With his good looks and keen sense of style, he's soon passing for a member of the upper class, never imagining anything different. When his position is threatened, which happens on more than one occasion, the realization that he has nothing, and nothing to return to, is almost too much to bear.

Barol has a friend in the footman, Didier Loubat, a handsome blond with an eagerness to help Barol settle in. They share their bathing allotment, hanging out together in the bathroom (with an erotic charge that comes and goes) and spending time in Loubat's room, where they can eavesdrop on the Vermeulen-Sickerts daughters below.

The daughters demonstrate Mason's ability to both employ and invert stereotypes. The younger sister, Constance, is blond and bubbly, a classic coquette. Louisa is taciturn and is absorbed in creating elegant, simple outfits that run counter to those of the day (think early Coco Chanel, who appears in the acknowledgments).

With opposing temperaments and style, they are set up to loathe each other; plus, Constance has had 18 marriage proposals to Louisa's three. But "[t]his discrepancy made no difference to the girls' friendship, which was devoted and tender," Mason writes. "This was partly because Louisa discouraged all suitors, finding none to her taste, while her sister took satisfaction from quantity as well as quality."

Barol patiently pursues the sisters' affections, but not in the way that he had first imagined. He finds he simply wants to get in their good graces, which happens more easily with Constance. Louisa thinks he's a showoff, a braggart, a dissimulator, and she's not wrong. But underneath those things, he is also driven by hope; he's a striver who relies on his looks and charm because that is all he has.

Halfway through the book, after successfully navigating through the subtle social traps Louisa has set to expose him, he is caught up by his own braggadocio. He said he adored riding, although he doesn't know how: When set on a strong, difficult horse, he is bruised and humiliated. "I am not as rich as you and I don't mind admitting it," he says to her in a quiet fury, "I have not had so many advantages."

This anger compels him to act rashly. Egbert, though smart and gifted, is also at the mercy of fearsome imagined forces and has not set foot outside of the house in years. Curing him of this ailment was to be Barol's task, which he hasn't worried about much. On this day, he puts the boy over his shoulder, marches him out of the house and deposits him on the walk outside. It is a terrible scene. Partly because we see how difficult a cure must be. We have read what is happening in Egbert's head: He hears voices, obeys when they command certain actions, repetition and repentance (he takes only cold baths, sometimes several a day).

This is a serious problem -- is it some combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia? -- but Barol knows only that the boy behaves strangely.

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