Mrs Zhivago of Queen's Park, by Olivia Lichtenstein

Suburban flings and swings
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The Independent Culture

Adultery is an old story, but one never far from the pages of modern fiction. In a humorous debut that takes its cue from Pasternak rather than Flaubert, film-maker-turned-novelist Olivia Lichtenstein takes a look at the marital discontents that drive a loving wife into another man's arms. Chloe Zhivago, North London wife, mother and psychotherapist, is fast approaching her mid-forties. Husband Greg has not slept with her for 245 days and she feels depression "nudging" at her gut. "Is this it?" she wonders as she prepares herself for another day of chivvying the au pair. "Will I never sleep with another man again?"

Her question is answered when, a few days later at a book launch in Soho, she meets Ivan - a tall, dark, émigré who rather unpromisingly introduces himself as "Van'ka". Smouldering looks and business cards are exchanged. The mobiles start to throb, and Chloe's life takes on a more thrilling turn as she has to decide whether, like her literary namesake, she can get away with one last fling before middle-age and gravity defeat her.

Lichtenstein's laid-back narrative voice suits confessional comedy. While Chloe seeks excitement and passion in a Bayswater hotel, best friend Ruthie Zimmer, a magazine editor, owns up to a clandestine relationship with cocaine. The friends' emergency "kvetchatoriums" in the café in Queen's Park become increasingly frequent as both women start to lose a grip on reality. In the end it is Chloe's father, a widower and composer of schmaltzy music, who proves her most reliable confidant.

Chloe's predicament is a familiar one, and the arc of her affair follows a traditional path from exhilaration to consummation to regret (and a case of chronic cystitis). Although Lichtenstein is good at capturing her characters' attempts at self-justification, the novel sidesteps the more interesting issues of guilt and remorse. From the start we suspect that Chloe is too much of a Jewish mother ever to exchange family life for elopement with a moody Russian.

While lacking the bite or irony of domestic comedies by writers such as Elinor Lipman or Fay Weldon, this undemanding examination of the "Divorce Decade", like all good popular fiction, addresses questions readers want to think about. Adultery is the most conventional way to rise above convention and, as Chloe finds out, there are only two possible endings - to stay or to go.

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