In Mason’s lust-fueled, ultimately poignant tale of Edwardian sexual longing, Jacobina has spent the last twenty years trapped within her stiff, corseted marriage to Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, a successful businessman who owns Amsterdam’s most lavish hotel. With their lovely daughters, Constance and Louisa, Maarten and Jacobina are considered part of the smart set and have
cultured a reputation for being colorful, modern, and very rich.
Arriving on Vermeulen-Sickerts' doorstep in response to a job offer, handsome Piet Barol has walked away from Leiden and the life of a university clerk. A young man who seeks identity in his profession as tutor, Piet has come to teach Master Egbert, the Vereulen-Sickets’ young son. Piet is no gross incompetent - he has a strong sense of his innate value, and while he knows he must tend to Egbert‘s inner demons, he also resolves to conquer the person whose gift is the freedom of the house.
While Jacobina’s social position protects her from the lascivious stares of men, her neat waist and her fashionable movements prove to be ample fodder for Piet as he delicately plays the first bars of the Chopin nocturne, then the Entr’acte to the third act of
Carmen. As the pure, beguiling melody rises from the embers of the music, for the first time Piet’s eyes meet Jacobin’s "in a jestingly erotic dance."
Sexual turmoil seethes just beneath this world of extreme rigidity. From the chilly formality of the housekeeper, Naomi de Leeuw, who does not approve of tutors as a breed nor of their ill-defined place in the household hierarchy, to the closeted self-hatred of the butler, Mr. Block, to the unrequited desires of the blond, strong-jawed footman Didier Loubat, Piet is inspired by Maarten’s circle and the endeavors of one of the age’s most successful capitalists.
Piet’s appeal is tempered by his flawed hubris, a pride that indulges him in his pass to this enchanting world. Basking in the splendors of privilege and blossoming
in subterfuge, Piet attempts to achieve a new level of social intimacy with Constance and Louisa as he graduates "to the status of guest."
Neither Jacobina nor Piet truly desires to be exposed of their trickery. While the erotic charge of music gives form to Jacobina's feelings, her poor heart is worthy of consolation and “longs to feel as free as the air.”
This is an exquisite, intense novel that Henry James or Evelyn Waugh might have written if they could have been freed from the strictures of class and circumstance. The author basks in the connection between sex and wealth, his seductive hero a victim of time and place when, though a series of misjudgments, he irreparably sabotages his future after he acknowledges that he originally came to Vermeulen-Sickerts' home resolving to live in opulence.
From his dreams of taunting young women in elegant dresses to his sensations of tranquil self-approval, a bundle of cash and a tourist-class ticket to South Africa on the world’s most luxurious ship purge and renew as Piet’s life is stitched even tighter together in yet another series of fragile and foolish seductions.