Mrs Zhivago of Queen's Park by Olivia Lichtenstein

A recipe for disaster - and humble pie
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The Independent Culture

There are several reasons for taking a lover. If you're in your forties and a little overweight it's a valuable way of shaping up (for everyone knows that regular illicit dalliance makes the pounds simply fall away). If it's 245 days since you last had sex with your husband it might well be a human rights issue. And then, if an absurdly seductive Russian lights upon you and starts wooing you with elaborate and exuberant compliments, sometimes courtesy of Pushkin - well, you'd be mad to resist.

Thus reasons Chloe Zhivago, psychotherapist, mother of two, an apparently contented and successful woman. Until recently, her life has followed the broad and primrosy path towards happily ever after. But, as she remarks, there comes a time when a man can look at a woman without seeing her, and a woman can look at a man and see straight through him. At this moment her story begins... and off it goes with a bang. She decides to grasp her hunk of an opportunity with everything she's got (once she's had it all exfoliated, mown, polished, and generally tidied up). Her mobile phone becomes red-hot with titillating textual intercourse, a rendezvous is arranged and the grande affaire with Ivan, pronounced Eevahn, begins.

Olivia Lichtenstein's first novel is full to bursting with good things. Parodying a prevalent practice, she often opens a chapter with a recipe. One or two sound seriously delicious: others are more sinister - recipes for trouble, for adultery, for humble pie. Chloe's outrageously idle Famous Friend offers one for a dinner party: "Buy nuts and olives. Open and pour into bowls. Chill wine. Tell guests to prepare and bring the other courses." As for Chloe herself, she may fudge the issue of fidelity, but she knows the golden rules of contemporary womanhood - that no one should stand in the way of a child who voluntarily eats fresh fruit and/or vegetables, and that you'll burn in hell if you fail to remove your make-up at night.

Lichtenstein's writing is succinct, witty and often funny enough to make you hoot unbecomingly on public transport. Some characters - particularly Chloe's father and her children - are carefully cross-hatched in fine and touching detail; others are drawn in broadly comic charcoal. Amongst these are Bea, the warrior lesbian au pair; Janet, the anxious and anorexic cat; Ruthie, the worldly best friend who can't quite quit the coke habit, and Edie, the mother-in-law not from Hell but from an Irish Methodist family, who eschews all drink save Bailey's, which she considers non-alcoholic and consumes by the crateful.

Chloe's husband Greg is the best character. He's a handsome, hypochondriac GP who hates ill people, is too vain to wear glasses and is locked in mortal combat with traffic wardens. Terrified of early-onset Alzheimer's, he hides everyday objects in ludicrous places to challenge his memory, and his family's patience. He is comically and of course transparently himself, and as such is ultimately irresistible. The craggy cardboard Ivan proves no match for the unlikely hero of this accomplished, enjoyable and surprisingly moral fable.

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