Rose Tremain’s Restoration is the story of Robert Merivel, a physician living in 17th century England. The book chronicles Merivel’s fortunes as they rise and fall (and rise again) during the reign on King Charles II. I really enjoyed the book because I thought Tremain’s Robert Merivel was one of the most believably human characters I’ve ever come across, brimming with contradictions. He’s a man who is ruled by his appetite for debauchery, yet strives to make his life mean something. He is capable of deep self-delusion, yet at times shows an endearing ability to examine his own faults.
Rose Tremain’s writing puts us right in the middle of Restoration England’s (many times unpleasant) sights, smells and tastes. Historical fiction is never so satisfying to me as when an author skillfully establishes the context through which characters actions can be understood. Tremain does this wonderfully. Through Merivel’s eyes we see life back as it was back then, a time when, whether rich or poor, good health and good fortune hung precariously from the thinnest thread. We follow Merivel's journey from obscurity to a place at the court of King Charles II. The king becomes the sun around which Merivel’s life orbits and a good portion of the book revolves around his obsession with staying in the His Highness’ good graces. Merivel’s tribulations begin when he decides to surrender his dignity so that he may hold the king’s approval.
A movie based on this book was made in the nineties which told Merivel’s story as one of a linear journey from dissolution to absolute redemption. The book’s story is not that one. While Merivel’s trials do transform him into someone who defines his worth according to something other than his standing at Whitehall Palace, the journey is uneven. At the end of the book Merivel remains a complicated bundle of contradictions, which is what makes him such a very good read.