The rakish Merivel, familiar of the Restoration Court of Charles II, has been reduced (like his beloved monarch) to the vicissitudes of age. It is 1683, fifteen years since his revels and outrageous peccadilloes with the randy king. Physician and courtier Merivel now spends his days at his country estate of Bidnold where his daughter, Margaret, prepares for an extended stay in Cornwall with friends; his aged, faithful servant mirrors Merivel's losing battle with time. Seeking a revival of spirit by offering his services to Louis XIV, The Sun King, Merivel sails for France, an introduction letter from Charles in hand to present at court: "What I longed for in these, my declining years, was to be dazzled by Wonders."
Used to easy access to King Charles, Merivel is nearly overwhelmed by the masses of people soliciting an audience with Louis, a feat he is clearly unprepared to accomplish given his underestimation of the circumstances in the French court. He is soon reduced to sharing a dank corner of the castle with another man, a stranger equally anxious to meet with the king and willing to share his bleak accommodations and food. Out of sorts and all but defeated by the failure of his expectations, Merivel finds relief in the form of a beautiful woman he meets by chance (shades of his former rowdy days with Charles, where women and opportunities were plentiful).
Louise de Flamanville offers her friendship and her bed. Her husband, Swiss guardsman Col. Jacques-Adolfe de Flamanville, prefers men in his bed and is frequently absent due to his posting but still a vague threat to the newly impassioned lovers. Unfortunately, a properly-outraged husband discovers the lovers, summarily casting Merivel from his wife's bed and his home. Appropriately discouraged, Merivel concedes the failure of his excursion to France but has plans to rendezvous in Switzerland later with Louise at her father's estate.
Fate has prepared another bad turn for the separated lovers when Merivel returns to England. He discovers potential tragedy waiting at Bidnold, Margaret taken deathly ill. Prayer, perseverance and a visit from King Charles eventually restore happiness to Merivel's house, with Margaret invited to the English court and Merivel—finally—en route to Switzerland. Alas, in the twilight of his years, the once lusty courtier is overmatched in love. The excessive energies of youthful abandon wane quickly, though not for the ardent Louise. A new plan for the future in hand, Merivel returns once more to England, unaware of the futility of assumptions when fate decrees otherwise.
A weary Merivel faces a diminished future. Here a familiarity with Tremain's Restoration might have a softening effect on this shallow character's impact, his former days and escapades building up the goodwill to sustain the complaints of a man who has taken much for granted, including friends and material goods. An ailing king, symbol of a dying realm, provides ample evidence that the world he knows has changed. Former dreams are cast aside in the chaos of loss, the faraway glow of Switzerland—and Louise—still calling in the midst of grief. Unfortunately, Merivel's insights come too few and too late, an aging Casanova whose priapic acrobatics grow exhausting, titillation finally succumbing to the banality of sexual exploitation.
The formerly enchanting Merivel is reduced to the ignominy of old age, an endless pursuit of fleshly delight and lack of inner depth relegating a formerly vibrant member of the Restoration Court, like his king, imminently irrelevant. Just another entitled citizen of his century running fatuously from the Grim Reaper.