Rose Tremain’s Restoration is the story of one Robert Merivel, whose father was a glovemaker for Charles II. His parents die in a fire, and the king takes pity on him and brings him to court. Robert was half-heartedly pursuing medical training, and the king promises him a permanent place if he can cure an ailing spaniel. Robert gets drunk and passes out, but because he does nothing about the dog–like bleeding it–the animal gets better and Robert’s a hero.
Merivel’s a foolish kind of guy. In fact, the king calls him his fool. He skips through life, merrily indulging his appetites, which are prodigious and multifold. Charles II keeps him around for amusement, useless though he is in almost every other way except for a little minor animal husbandry. Then the king does find a use for him at last. He arranges a sham marriage to one of his mistresses in order to keep one of his other mistresses quiet about her.
Robert now has an estate, a generous allowance, and a wife he doesn’t particularly care for, which is fine, since she’s hands-off anyhow. He continues to indulge his prodigious and multifold appetites, only now with his his own house and money to do it all on a bigger scale.
Then, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he loses it all. Suddenly forced to earn a living, Robert turns back to medicine, though he still whores around when he gets the chance. Through a further unfortunate set of circumstances, he fathers a child, whose mother dies in childbirth, all the time wishing for restoration to his former life.
His chance comes at last, and the book lives up to its double-entendre title. How will Robert handle it? Has he learned enough through all his misfortunes to change his ways? Not really. He’s always Robert, and Tremaine violates a good many literary rules by not changing him. Good for her.
Restoration was written in 1989, and judging by the afterword has met worldwide acclaim and gone through many reprintings. Though it can work well to create a shallow protagonist who doesn’t change throughout the book, there’s a price to pay. Personally, I found Robert a bit boring after a while. His antics were entertaining in a youngster, but rather pitiable in the adult. Sort of like the middle-aged guy with a combover, a yellow convertible, and a trophy girl friend. But, hey, feel good for the guy. He’s going for it, and what’s life for, anyhow?