The Restoration is over and Robert Merivel, renowned physician and courtier to Charles II, now faces the anxieties of middle age. Questions crowd his mind: has he been a good father? Is he a fair master? Is he the king’s friend or the king’s slave? In search of answers, Merivel sets off for the French court. But Versailles leaves him in despair, until a chance encounter with a seductive Swiss botanist allows him to dream of an honorable future. But back home, his loyalty and medical skill are about to be tested to the limit, while the captive bear he has brought back from France begins to cause havoc... With a cascade of lace at his neck and a laugh that can burst out of him in the midst of torment, Merivel is soulful, outrageous, and achingly sad. His unmistakable, self-mocking voice speaks directly to us down the centuries. Get ready to laugh, prepare to weep - Robert Merivel is back in Rose Tremain’s magical sequel to Restoration.
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This book picks up 15 years after King Charles II has restored Robert Merivel to his former grand house, Bidnold, in Norfolk. Both the King and Merivel, as well as his faithful servant Will Gates, are aging; Merivel is now 56 and his daughter Margaret has grown into a graceful beauty whom he is very attached to. When their neighbours propose to take her away with them to Cornwall for a time, the notion of this separation depresses Merivel so much that the King suggests Merivel set out to Versailles for a change of air, and to seek the patronage of his cousin Louis XIV as one of his court doctors. But when Merivel arrives at the French palace, he is discouraged to find his letter from King Charles does not help to discern him from the masses of supplicants equally looking from favour from the the Sun King, and he is obliged to share a garret with a Dutch clockmaker and subside on a diet of peas and jam, with drinking water supplied from the public water fountains, and to add insult to injury, he also has to put up with ridicule from the courtiers who find his clothes and accessories aren't up to the latest standards of Versailles fads.
Things start looking up when he meets with a Swiss beauty called Louise de Flamanville who proposes to bring him to a couturier to outfit him with the necessary bows and ribbons. She happens to dabble in chemical experiments and quickly takes on Merivel as her lover, until her wrathful husband, a homosexual guardsman, eventually provokes him into a duel. Later on, Merivel is forced to make a choice which reminds him too much of the past in the form of a marriage of convenience which is to bring him great wealth and splendour, but that choice has led him down the wrong path once before, making him indebted forever, and he had promised himself not to repeat that mistake again.
Instead, he rescues a captive bear from certain death, which is later christened Clarendon by the King, and brings him back to Bidnold. Now Merivel hopes to make something of his life by starting work on a treatise inspired to him by Clarendon, and which seeks to prove that animals have souls, which of course, he eventually abandons. Clarendon himself comes to a bad end, first escaping his pen, then pursued by the angry countrymen who's animals the bear has eaten during his escape, he is eventually caught and put to death, then cut into pieces to be eaten in equal shares among the country folk.
Merivel's daughter Margaret almost dies from Typhoid fever, but is brought back home in time, and through his attentive care, he manages to rescue her, only to be discouraged by the the fact that King Charles has taken an interest in her during her recovery. Would the King actually betray him, his most valiant and loyal supporter, by ruining his daughter's reputation? When the King asks Margaret to join his household as lady in waiting to his favourite mistress, Merivel is in no position to refuse. Life is certainly never dull in Merivel's world, though it is fraught with many risks.
When we initially met Robert Merivel in Restoration, the first novel, it was clear he was a misguided man with a melancholy disposition, but also an essentially a good person with a good heart who seeks to enjoy life to the utmost, at the risk of making terrible blunders which were comical to the reader. By this second novel, he's become that much more reflective, and he has his notebooks from the past which his faithful Will has preserved for him to look back on and to measure his progress up against. He knows that both he and his King don't have much longer to live and that he is at the end of an era, so his overall tone can't help but be that much more melancholy as he reflects on mortality, yet he seems that much more human for it too.
Very highly recommended, but must be read in sequence following Restoration.