Sunday, May 19, 2013

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Robert Merivel grows up

Robert Merivel, a mediocre medical student, accidentally cures King Charles’ beloved dog, and endears himself to the King with his goofball “Foolish” behavior. Merivel's friendship with the monarch comes in handy when the King's primary mistress becomes jealous of his secondary mistress, young Celia, so he has need of an amiable cuckold to make it appear Celia is out of his hands. Ah, Merivel. The king gives Merivel a beautiful estate in the country, which Merivel then redecorates in gaudy colors, spending money with abandon, and beginning an affair with the noble wife across the way. Then a complication. Celia has been too demanding of the King, making ultimatums, forgetting the hierarchy, and she is punished by an exile to her “husband.” Merivel is delighted, but makes a key mistake. He falls in love/lust with her, attempting to kiss her. The king becomes enraged, Merivel is kicked out of his estate, exiled from London, and must do penance as a doctor at his friend Pearce’s insane asylum, while plague is raging outside the walls. Once again, at the asylum, even after many months of good behavior, Merivel makes a lustful misjudgment, knocking up a comely madwoman. This time the penance is to marry her. Merivel and his wife return to London where he witnesses the Great Fire of London.

As usual with Rose Tremain’s books, this was an excellent novel that worked on many levels – a morality tale, a historical fiction, a story of self awareness. Each character, even the numerous minor ones, are quirkily and completely imagined, their motivations entirely believable. The King, a thoughtful monarch and libertine, is motivated by divine order (lucky for him). Merivel is motivated by lust. Pearce is motivated by Jesus. Celia is motivated by love of the King.  

It reminded me very much of Samuel Pepys' diary, that is, the story of a curious lustful young man, who just happens to witness the great events of his day, the return of Charles the Second, the Plague, the Great Fire of London. Yet given equal weight in the entries are his constant interest in screwing chambermaids and his deep love for his devout little French wife. Merivel’s joy in living is what gets the reader involved, rooting for him, because he’s something of a careless dope. I wasn’t quite sure what happened at the end – it seems that Merivel is restored to the beautiful estate after his wandering penance and taking responsibility for his red headed child.

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