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One of the best...,
This review is from: Restoration (Paperback)
If I finish a book and declare it to be one of the best I have ever read, I normally wait a few days before writing a review. If my opinion hasn't changed by the time I take up my pen, I restate the opinion. It doesn't happen often. Rose Tremain's Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.
It's a book with everything a good novel should have. There's a thoroughly endearing, involving and interesting central character. There's a wonderful backdrop in mid-seventeenth century England. There's intellectual pursuit, carnal knowledge, earthy lifestyle, religious revelation and a good deal of excellent cooking. There are complicated relationships, both unrequited and requited love, commissions from royalty, the proximity of madness and, to keep everything in perspective, a keen sense of the absurd. And, alongside all of that, we live through some great historical events in the restoration of the monarchy, the plague and a Great Fire.
But central to everything is the remarkable Robert Merivel. He's a talented individual who threatens to achieve but rarely does. He's never a success but manages to stumble upon a succession of remarkable achievements. He drops out of his studies as a physician, but practices as a doctor. He gets a special job from the king, but fluffs it. He lands a job that's a meal ticket for life and gets kicked out.
Through Merivel's eyes we experience the sounds, smells and lifestyle of London, the opulence of high society, courtesy of royal patronage and then the frugality of religious commitment. We also appreciate how knowledge and thus assumptions can change. We enter a world where Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood is still novel. When, as medical students, Merivel and his colleague Pearce discover a man with an open wound on the chest that allows his beating heart to be touched, the pair marvel at how the organ that is supposed to be the centre of all emotion has itself no feeling. In our rational age, of course, no-one refers to heart as having anything whatsoever to do with emotion... One wonders which of our currently unquestioned assumptions will be as quaintly absurd three hundred years from now.
Celia is one of the king's mistresses. As a cover for his continued liaisons with her, he suggests Merivel marry her in name only. It all goes wrong, of course, when our rather shaggy and unattractive hero, seen as something of a joke by his contemporaries, falls for her. He spins a yarn or two and is found out, but along the way we feel we have experienced what it is like to seek and receive patronage. We also feel the subsequent fall from favour.
When Merivel's life changes, we too are drawn into his new world, a world in which his unfinished and thus unconsummated study of medicine can be usefully employed. He becomes involved with his work, eventually too involved, and there is yet another fall from grace back into the company of the hoi polloi.
But in this era, everyone's life experience seems close to some edge or other. There's plague about, and disease of all kinds. Poverty both threatens and beckons, and yet daily the needs of flesh must be satisfied. And in this respect Merivel is both a success and a survivor. Despite being a figure of fun and an incompetent, he lives life to the full. Through him we taste, smell and sense his age and, in the end, we also understand it a little more than we did.
Restoration is strong on plot. What happens to Robert Merivel is as important as how it happens, so my review reveals little of the detail of the character's progress through life. But it is always an endearing and enlightening journey, and reveals aspects of humanity that are surely universal and eternal, as eternal perhaps as Merivel's own room at the top of his tower. Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.