Merivel: A Man of His Time

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Overview

Get ready to laugh, prepare to weep — Robert Merivel is back in Rose Tremain's magical sequel to Restoration.

Robert Merivel, courtier to Charles II is no longer a young man — but off he goes to France in search of the Sun King and to Switzerland in pursuit of a handsome woman. Versailles — all glitter in front and squalor behind — is a fiasco: Merivel is forced to share an attic (and a chamber pot) with a Dutch clock-maker while attempting to sustain himself on peas and jam and...

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Merivel: A Man of His Time

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Overview

Get ready to laugh, prepare to weep — Robert Merivel is back in Rose Tremain's magical sequel to Restoration.

Robert Merivel, courtier to Charles II is no longer a young man — but off he goes to France in search of the Sun King and to Switzerland in pursuit of a handsome woman. Versailles — all glitter in front and squalor behind — is a fiasco: Merivel is forced to share an attic (and a chamber pot) with a Dutch clock-maker while attempting to sustain himself on peas and jam and water from the fountains. Switzerland, by contrast, is perhaps a little too comfortable. But the lady, a clever botanist, leads Merivel deliciously on — until her jealous husband bursts in with duelling pistols.

As he narrates the picaresque journey, Merivel gets into all sorts of scrapes; he is torn between enjoying himself and making something of his life, through medicine and the study of science. He tries to be diligent, but constantly backslides into laugher and laziness. A big-hearted rogue who loves his daughter, his country house and the English King... Merivel is Everyman — and he speaks directly to us down the centuries.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in 1683, 15 years after the end of Tremain’s Restoration, this sequel finds sometime doctor, sometime court jester Robert Merivel restless despite his comfortable county estate in England. Merivel travels to Versailles looking for joie de vivre, encountering instead a cliquish court, shabby accommodations, and an ill-treated pet bear. Merivel sends the bear back to England before returning himself to attend to his ailing daughter, Margaret. Though she recovers—and the prospect of a new romance, with a gay Swiss Guard’s beautiful, neglected wife, Louise de Flamanville, arises in the meantime— Merivel remains weary, disappointed, and haunted by memories, his malaise mirroring that of King Charles II, whose reign is ending with England beset by poverty and unrest. As before, Tremain contrasts beauty and coarseness, melancholy and slapstick, tenderness and pageantry. Wonderfully rich scenes light up the meandering narrative: the King’s mistress in retreat; the bear on the loose; Merivel walking the royal dogs. If something seems lacking, that may only be in comparison with the first novel’s unflagging inventiveness and its film adaptation’s unrestrained opulence, and from Tremain’s focus on the Restoration’s sadder, waning days, with both Merivel and Charles realizing how short of their former promise their lives have fallen. Agent: Bill Clegg, William Morris Endeavor. (Apr.)
James Walton - The Daily Mail
“What ultimately makes the book such a joy is simply being in Merivel’s company. His narration is by turns rueful, comic, despairing and joyful; but it’s always bursting with life, always good-hearted—and always entirely loveable.”
The Herald - Rosemary Goring
“Tremain’s control of her character and her reflective but often dramatic unfolding of events are impressive acts of authorial ventriloquism, in which she gives a nod to the great diarists of that era but carries off her own man’s story with wit, grace and originality. . . . She not only effortlessly sustains momentum and mood, but brings the novel to as near a perfect ending as one could wish.”
The Observer - Daisy Hay
“When he appeared in 1989, Merivel was truly the man of the Thatcherite moment, an individualistic, hedonistic creature who held up a mirror to his audience. So does he still have something to say to us in 2012?Resoundingly, yes.”
The Daily Telegraph - Mick Brown
“Robert Merivel is one of the great imaginative creations in English literature of the past 50 years. [Merivel is] as rich and as dazzling as its predecessor—steeped in wise and witty reflection on the great Mysteries of Life, and the timeless, futile Hopes and Follies.”
The Daily Mail - James Walton
“What ultimately makes the book such a joy is simply being in Merivel’s company. His narration is by turns rueful, comic, despairing and joyful; but it’s always bursting with life, always good-hearted—and always entirely loveable.”
The Times - Angus Clarke
“Richly marbled with intelligence, compassion and compelling characters, leavened with flourishes of lyricism and and attractive tolerance towards human frailties.”
Rosemary Goring - The Herald
“Tremain’s control of her character and her reflective but often dramatic unfolding of events are impressive acts of authorial ventriloquism, in which she gives a nod to the great diarists of that era but carries off her own man’s story with wit, grace and originality. . . . She not only effortlessly sustains momentum and mood, but brings the novel to as near a perfect ending as one could wish.”
Daisy Hay - The Observer
“When he appeared in 1989, Merivel was truly the man of the Thatcherite moment, an individualistic, hedonistic creature who held up a mirror to his audience. So does he still have something to say to us in 2012?
Resoundingly, yes.”
The Herald
“Tremain’s control of her character and her reflective but often dramatic unfolding of events are impressive acts of authorial ventriloquism, in which she gives a nod to the great diarists of that era but carries off her own man’s story with wit, grace and originality. . . . She not only effortlessly sustains momentum and mood, but brings the novel to as near a perfect ending as one could wish.”— Rosemary Goring
The Observer
“When he appeared in 1989, Merivel was truly the man of the Thatcherite moment, an individualistic, hedonistic creature who held up a mirror to his audience. So does he still have something to say to us in 2012?
Resoundingly, yes.”— Daisy Hay
The Daily Telegraph
“Robert Merivel is one of the great imaginative creations in English literature of the past 50 years. [Merivel is] as rich and as dazzling as its predecessor—steeped in wise and witty reflection on the great Mysteries of Life, and the timeless, futile Hopes and Follies.”— Mick Brown
The Daily Mail
“What ultimately makes the book such a joy is simply being in Merivel’s company. His narration is by turns rueful, comic, despairing and joyful; but it’s always bursting with life, always good-hearted—and always entirely loveable.”— James Walton
The Times
“Richly marbled with intelligence, compassion and compelling characters, leavened with flourishes of lyricism and and attractive tolerance towards human frailties.”— Angus Clarke
Kirkus Reviews
Tremain (Trespass, 2010, etc.) pens a follow-up to her novel Restoration, first published in 1989, about a 17th-century English physician with a self-deprecating wit. It's November, 1683, a mere 15 years after Robert Merivel's return to his estate in Bidnold, and manservant Will Gates, now 74 to his master's 57, is still alive, and though not exactly kicking, he's tottering around and comically caring for his employer. Suffering from crying jags and melancholy, the troubled doctor is in somewhat of a rut. His daughter Margaret is becoming more independent with each day, and he's wallowing in self-pity and loneliness. Merivel's youth is now behind him, and though he's had a colorful existence to date, he fears that his life has served no lasting purpose. Recognizing her father's depression, Margaret urges him to put some spice back in his life while she vacations in Cornwall with their neighbors, and Merivel decides to make good on her suggestion. As he travels among France, Switzerland, London and Bidnold, Merivel does, indeed, find adventure, excitement and moments of unadulterated happiness. But he also experiences times of personal loss and extreme sadness. Merivel recounts these years in touching and bawdy detail: his involvement with Madame Louise de Flamanville, a woman whose interests and sexual appetite equal his own; his friendship with a humble clockmaker with whom he shares quarters while both attempt to gain access to King Louis XIV in Versailles; his empathy toward a caged bear he tries to rescue. Tremain's genius lies in her ability to portray Merivel in multifaceted ways that make him human and ultimately likable. He's at times a self-indulgent, impulsive scamp who commits outrageous acts, but he also exhibits an admirable side. Tremain's sequel can be read as a stand-alone, but readers may struggle to understand many of the events the main character alludes to in the narrative.
Mick Brown - The Daily Telegraph
“Robert Merivel is one of the great imaginative creations in English literature of the past 50 years. [Merivel is] as rich and as dazzling as its predecessor—steeped in wise and witty reflection on the great Mysteries of Life, and the timeless, futile Hopes and Follies.”
Angus Clarke - The Times
“Richly marbled with intelligence, compassion and compelling characters, leavened with flourishes of lyricism and and attractive tolerance towards human frailties.”
Booklist
“Starred review. It’s an absolute pleasure to spend time in Merivel’s company.”
Daily Beast
“Hilarious and poignant. . . . Fans of Restoration will not be disappointed.”
Richard Eder - Boston Globe
““Not just pleasurable, but varied, engrossing, and at times, astonishing.”
From the Publisher
"Surely one of the most versatile novelists writing today." —Daily Express
"Vivid, original and always engaging." —The Times
"Rose Tremain writes comedy that can break your heart." — Literary Review
Library Journal
Master of a fine estate; father of a beautiful, intelligent daughter; favorite of the king; a rich eventful life behind him, Sir Robert Merivel should be happy, but the rollicking hero of Restoration (the basis for a film starring Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself restless and pining for something more. His daughter suggests he seek wholeness by discovering his Life's Work, a seemingly glorious quest, and what more glorious place to seek it than the newly built Versailles, court of the world's wealthiest, most powerful monarch? Hanging around with other supplicants, Merivel despairs of being noticed until he catches the attention of a beautiful, brilliant botanist who convinces him to pursue his quest at her father's castle in Switzerland. Unfortunately, a summons from King Charles arrives, and Merivel is off again to wait on his adored monarch, only to find his estate neglected, devoted servant dead, daughter engaged, and the king deathly ill—confronting him once again with the philosophical conundrums that sent him off in the first place. VERDICT Tremain's latest will appeal to sophisticated readers of historical fiction who appreciate a richly painted setting enlivened by an intriguingly empathetic portrait of Charles II and an all-too-human hero—passionate, paradoxical, self-destructive, and infinitely sympathetic. [See Prepub Alert, 10/22/12.]—Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA
The Barnes & Noble Review

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since we were first introduced to Robert Merivel, "erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful, and sad," the seventeenth-century antihero of Rose Tremain's Restoration. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989, the work helped usher in the crop of blood-sweat-and-semen-infused historical novels of which Hilary Mantel's chronicles of Thomas Cromwell are the ripest fruits. Now, in Merivel: A Man of His Time, he appears again, slovenly in habits, melancholic in nature, and as much the biological organism that he ever was.

The time is the Restoration, the reign of Charles II (1660–85), which saw the Stuart king returned from exile after the Puritan Revolution and Civil War which had brought the beheading of his father, a pinched religiosity, and a world turned upside down. Now extravagance, gaiety, and display have revisited England and with them an insistence on hierarchy and order. These principles, however, have been made almost impossible to realize, given flux and uncertainty in every sphere: estates changing hands, papists and French persons creeping into high places, and the very foundations of knowledge, of ethics and nature, dissolving under the advance of empiricism.

Merivel is in the midst of it. Physician, natural historian, and questioner of received wisdom in both science and life, he is as hard to get straight as anything in his society. Even the story of his life has five beginnings, as we learn right off in the first book. There too we saw him, the son of a mere glove maker, come into an imposing manor and country estate. This was his reward for marrying one of the king's mistresses, an expedient devised to salve the jealousy of yet another of Charles's women, the formidable Countess of Castlemaine. Merivel is forbidden to exercise his conjugal rights — those belong to the king — and the whole arrangement, a richly compensated cuckoldry, is humiliating and dishonorable. This is only part of the story told in Restoration, of which I will say no more lest I spoil it for readers who have not yet enjoyed its unseemly pleasures.

Opening the present novel we find that fifteen years have passed. It is 1683 and Merivel's servants have become old, cranky, and incompetent; his daughter has grown into a beautiful young woman; and Merivel, himself, is poring over a Book in which is contained the story of his Former Life. (For some reason, he has taken up capitalizing a lot of Words). He is, as is his wont, down in the dumps, feeling his life has no direction. Stung by his daughter's reproach that he is idle and that he should embark on some studious enterprise, he decides instead to seek glory. To this end, he travels to London to visit the king and procure from him a written introduction to Louis XIV of France. This accomplished, he travels to the great court of Versailles to offer the Sun King his services as a physician.

Here we are treated to the insalubrious underpinnings of glory. Life at Versailles is a gift to the novelist of history's material necessities, human foulness, and cruelty. Tremain wonderfully conjures the palace, still under construction, as a malicious and odiferous mélange. The halls and corridors are jostling scenes of sneering, rivalrous courtiers and desperate petitioners. There too we meet another of the book's important characters, a caged bear, neglected, tormented by thirst, and "sitting in a puddle of its own excrement, staring out at the world." Accommodations for most people — and there are thousands there — are makeshift and fetid. Merivel shares a tiny space (and "pisspot") with a Dutchman who hopes to interest Madame Maintenon in his clock, thus gaining her patronage and, with it, fame and fortune. The two men subsist chiefly on meager (and laxative) rations of oatmeal, beans, and jam.

As is the case with most things in Merivel's life, the trip does not work out as he hoped, though he does fall in love, an attachment which leads to sojourns in both a French château and a Swiss one, a duel, the promise of material ease, and the gradual disintegration of his ever-scrutinized feelings into competing elements of appetite, emotion, and prudential reason. Merivel, though exceedingly rich in material detail, is a novel whose theater of action lies equally within its main actor. He wonders whether he, who cannot believe in God or in Resurrection, has "a soul at all, or whether? [he is] merely an Amalgam of vain Longings and Appetites, no better than a morning cockerel strutting about his yard, waking all the world with his inharmonious voice." Merivel's description, analysis and questioning of his own nature reflect a central preoccupation which arose in the West in the seventeenth century and which continues into the present with its bootless enthrallment with neuroscience.

Meanwhile, back in the outside world, Merivel's daughter has caught the eye of King Charles, who invites her to court to become a lady-in- waiting to the Duchess of Portsmouth, another one of the concupiscent monarch's bevy of mistresses. Whether her virtue can remain intact in this wicked arena is one question, but larger issues are also afoot. Look at the date! It is coming up to 1685 — which brings the death of Charles II, Merivel's patron and protector, and the subsequent, abbreviated reign of James II, that most unpopular servant of Rome. What happens then is not mine to reveal; suffice it to say that this novel, like its processor of 1989, is a fine amalgam of political and intellectual history that is still, for all that, character driven, exuberantly written and leavened throughout with humor.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393079579
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/15/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

ROSE TREMAIN's bestselling novels have been published in 27 countries and have won many prizes, including the Orange Prize (The Road Home and — shortlisted — The Colour), the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award (Music and Silence) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Prix Femina Etranger (Sacred Country). She is also the author of award-winning short stories and TV plays. Rose Tremain lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer, Richard Holmes.

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