Rose Tremain is a new author for me, but I’ve been meaning to try one of her books for a long time. Her 1989 novel Restoration seemed like my sort of book and knowing that I need to read the sequel, Merivel: A Man of His Time, for my Walter Scott Prize project gave me the motivation to pick it up and start reading. It also counts towards my Ten from the TBR project, which has been sadly neglected this year!
Restoration is set in 17th century England in the years following the restoration of the monarchy; the title refers not just to the time period but also to the personal restoration of a man’s self-respect and his place in the world. That man is Robert Merivel, a glovemaker’s son and trained physician who, near the beginning of the novel, obtains a position at the court of Charles II as surgeon to the king’s spaniels. Merivel is quickly swept away by the fun and frivolity of the court, making himself popular by playing the fool and entertaining the king.
It’s not long, however, before the king comes to Merivel with a request for help. Charles requires a husband for one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence – someone who will be a husband in name only, giving Celia a form of respectability while the king continues his affair with her. Merivel agrees to marry her and at first is delighted with the country estate in Norfolk which he is given as part of the deal. Everything is going well until Celia comes to join him there and Merivel discovers that he is falling in love with his wife…something he has been strictly forbidden to do.
Restoration is narrated by Robert Merivel himself and I found him both a fascinating and a frustrating character, more anti-hero than hero. Irresponsible and immature, you get the impression he is stumbling through life from one disaster to another, with no clear purpose in sight – and yet, despite his flaws and his failures, you can’t help feeling for him as he falls out of favour with the king. While I can’t say that I actually liked Merivel, he is an engaging narrator and his story is told with such an appealing mixture of humour and sensitivity that I was captivated by him and hoped that he would find a way to restore his fortunes.
Rose Tremain’s lively writing style perfectly suits the time period in which the novel is set. I always enjoy reading about the 1660s and I liked the contrast here between the descriptions of Merivel’s life as a country gentleman, his adventures at court and his time practising medicine in London. Merivel is in London during the Plague and the Great Fire, which are both vividly recreated. However, there is a long section in the middle of the book set in an asylum run by Merivel’s Quaker friend, Pearce, and I found my attention starting to wander during these chapters. I could see the importance of this section to the plot and to Merivel’s personal development, but I struggled to feel any interest in the new characters we meet at the asylum and I thought the whole episode went on for far too long.
Overall, though, I was impressed with this book and with my first experience of Rose Tremain’s writing. I’ll be interested to see how Robert’s story continues in Merivel, which I’m hoping to start soon.