Mrs. Zhivago of Queen’s Park

“People often decide that it’s time for them to get married and then marry whomever they happen to be with at that moment . . . so you don’t necessarily marry the right person, you just marry the person who’s there.”

That isn’t British novelist Olivia Lichtenstein talking, just the lead character from her first novel, Mrs. Zhivago of Queen’s Park, which was published by Orion Books of the UK earlier this year (1995) and has already been sold to 10 countries.

Lichtenstein, a documentary filmmaker with the BBC for many years, was in town recently and spoke with Eye On Arts about her book, which tiptoes into the rather indelicate area of adultery. The book is a light-hearted and entertaining romp into the heart of a moral question that has been a major theme of literature ever since Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina — and yes, Dr. Zhivago — hit the bookstalls.

“I think what I was trying to do is to address a topic of conversation between myself and my girlfriends,” Lichtenstein said. “There’s a kind of restlessness that overtakes married people. I think that rather than having an affair, it would be a good idea to write about one instead.”

The book’s protagonist is Chloe Zhivago, a fortyish mother who has been married to Greg for what feels like an eternity. When she meets a handsome Russian named Ivan, she is tempted to risk a passionate romance “before gravity wins the battle with her face and figure.”

Like the writer herself, Lichtenstein’s heroine is Jewish. “That’s important to her even though she’s not religious,” she said. “It’s important because of the values it instilled in her, the most important of which is family and the need to preserve the family at all costs.”

It won’t be giving away too much to reveal that the story ultimately serves as an endorsement of the institution of marriage: one reviewer called the book “a surprisingly moral fable” and another said it “could turn husbands back into lovers.”

“I suppose if there’s an ultimate message, it’s that you shouldn’t give up on marriage too easily,” said Lichtenstein, whose book will seem a perfect summer read for women at the beach or cottage. Not only does it touch a popular domestic chord, each of its chapters offers a different recipe.

Interestingly, the book is being marketed under a different title — Chloe Zhivago’s Recipe for Marriage and Mischief — in the United States. “They tested it and found that the English title made Americans think of a little old lady living in Queens,” the author said. “They didn’t think it accurately reflected what the book was about.” ♦

© 2005