Robert Merivel, who has studied to be a physician, is appointed, ironically, to be veterinarian for the spaniels of King Charles II, who has recently been restored to the throne following the death of Oliver Cromwell. Merivel enjoys the gaiety and frivolity of court life, and, a bit of a fool, he entertains the king. The king’s decision to placate one of his lovers by marrying off his favorite mistress to Robert Merivel, spells the beginning of the end for Merivel’s tenuous fortunes. Warned not to fall in love with his wife, Celia Clemence, since the king intends to continue seeing her, Merivel cannot help himself, and he is cast out, losing not only the king’s affection, but also his house and, of course his wife.
Joining a group of men who work at an asylum for the insane, Merivel learns that there are deeper concerns in life than the hedonism of his life at court, and he develops genuine affection for several of the kindly Quaker men with whom he works. When he transgresses the society’s rules, however, he is cast out from there, too, ending up in London at the time of the Great Plague and eventually the Great London Fire.
Painting vivid pictures of Merivel’s life-at court, at the asylum in Whittlesea, and in the neighborhoods of London -author Rose Tremain brings the age, its customs, its science, and its social structure to life. The years of 1664 – 1666 are especially difficult, and as Merivel lives through the horrors of the Plague and the panic of the Great Fire, which Tremain recreates with the drama they deserve, the reader can see Merivel becoming less a fool and more a human. Like the restoration of the king to the throne, Merivel’s “restoration” to dignity takes place after a period of dark reflection and self-examination, and both Merivel and the country learn from their travails.
Tremain develops Merivel’s personal transformation with sensitivity, finesse, and much ironic humor, and when, at last, he is noticed again by the court, his understanding of himself and his role in the world is far more profound than it was before. Depicting the personal and the philosophical turmoils of these early Restoration years with a historian’s eye for detail and a detached observer’s sense of wit, Tremain illustrates the contradictions of this period realistically and often with dark humor. A fine historical novel, Restoration transcends its period, offering observations, themes, and lessons for the present day.