Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker has landed at the right time. Americans, thanks to PBS's 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 — and a country house full of burbling romance — are condensed into handsome and ambitious Piet Barol.
Barol arrives in Amsterdam in 1907 with a university degree and a cold past he's determined to leave behind. He has 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 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." They exchange significant glances — the Victorian era has only just ended — yet it's enough to secure him the job.
I know, I know: It sounds like bodice-ripping folderol. Sure, the setting and plot might 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 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.
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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 soon passes for a member of the upper class, never imagining anything different. When his position is threatened, 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 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 daughters below.
The daughters demonstrate Mason's ability to employ and invert stereotypes. The younger sister, Constance, is blond and bubbly, a classic coquette. Louisa is taciturn, 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 style and temperaments, they are set up to loathe each other. But "this discrepancy made no difference to the girls' friendship, which was devoted and tender," Mason writes.
Barol patiently pursues the sisters' affections, but he finds he simply wants to get in their good graces, which happens more easily with Constance. Louisa thinks he's a dissimulator, and she's not wrong. But he is driven by hope; he's a striver who relies on his looks and charm because that's all he has.