Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is definitely a must read.
“It’s not a comforting book, but it offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman…Waldman, herself a woman in her early thirties, has cleverly chosen to tell the story of our generation’s romantic chaos not from the perspective of a woman panicked that she’s wasting her prime but from that of a young man trying to enjoy his.” –The New Yorker
Her book is about the coming-of-age of a brilliant young literary man named Nate.
Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a modern man – who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety; who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down…The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness…
There are books one is happy having read and ultimately wants more from the writer or for the story to continue. Waldman’s novel is no different.
Throughout the story I found a lot of interesting material worth considering and that, for me, was what brought me to read her novel in the first place. From the very beginning we understand that Nate is “not the kind of guy who disappears[s] after sleeping with a women…On the contrary: Nathaniel Piven was a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege” (3). All of this is very good and precise information but what draws me to Waldman’s character is what follows next: “Morever he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience” (3).
Nate is 30 years old and his career is starting to hit its pinnacle stride – “he wasn’t looking for anything serious…he was [simply] focused on his career” (5).
The first chapter introduces us to the characters at hand. We have Jason and Peter, Nate’s best guy friends. Aurit is Nate’s best female friend. And Elisa, Nate’s ex-girlfriend who insists that “if [they] really are friends [then] why can’t [she] have [him] over for dinner with a few people?” (8) A question that is often the product of a post-breakup not officially quite over. Yet it’s within this get-together that Nate encounters Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” (8) the very girl that forces Nate to consider what it is he really wants. If there’s something that I really liked about Waldman’s novel it definitely is her detailed sketches of her characters.
It’s within this party that they quickly get involved in conversation that although it’s “supposed to be ornamental [and] aimed to amuse” (11) fails and falls into a discussion on Nate’s essay “about how one of the privileges of being elite is that we outsource the act of exploitation” (10):
“We get other people to do things that we’re too morally thin-skinned to do ourselves,” Nate said with more conviction. “Conscience is the ultimate luxury” (10-11).
What resonates here is that last part on one’s conscience. For Nate, this is important because a clean conscience is something that he considers the ultimate luxury yet finds to no avail in his relationship with Hannah throughout the novel.
After introducing us to the literary world that Nate resides in Brooklyn, New York City, Waldman places the second chapter of her novel to serve more of a back story to how Nate grew up.
“Nate had not always been the kind of guy women call an asshole. Only recently had he been popular enough to inspire such ill will” (17).
And as we come to find out, Nate was considered “nice”:
“Nate is not an alpha male, as Waldman is careful to show us; he has only recently discovered his allure. Raised in suburban Maryland by Romanian parents, handsome enough but too bright to secure a place among the cool crowd at school, Nate was of indeterminate social status as a teenager. This early experience makes him inveterately thoughtful and self-conscious” –The New Yorker
Part of me that is drawn to Nate as a human being is Waldman’s detailed description of his upbringing. It makes me want to understand/find out why Nate is the way he is. And then I find a passage that just seems to click:
“It wasn’t even about sex. Nate’s life had been somewhat short on friendship, real friendship, distinct from the sort of conditional alliance[s] he had…” (20).
Perhaps it comes down to friendship?
But it’s more complicated than that.
He is admitted to Harvard, a place “he couldn’t have been more naive, more uneducated in the social mores” (22). He is lost and he happily gives in to following a suite-mate of his until it’s too late to rub off his suite-mate’s influence too easily. It’s in disappointment and isolation that he eventually turns to reading in response to a “feverish loneliness… [that] he began to fear would be permanent” (27). However, he is eventually saved by his college girlfriend, Kristen, and it’s upon meeting Jason and Peter that he finds his time to be a happy one:
“It was so new – the girl and the friends. And he’d waited so long for both” (29).
After he graduates, Nate moves in with Kristen. Things don’t work out so well, they break up, and then Nate moves to New York – a place where “he had high expectations, both professionally and romantically” (31).
And it’s in New York that Nate begins to get a sense of how the dating scene worked:
“It was around this time that he began to understand what was meant by the phrase low self-esteem, something he used to think he identifies with intuitively. But what he had himself experienced was nothing like the total habituation to being treated badly that he encountered in some of the girls he met his first year in New York…But pity couldn’t be transmuted into romantic feeling…” (32-33).
Determined to make a living writing, Nate does just that as he settles and eventually becomes a “young, up-and-coming literary intellectual” (35). And it’s there where the back-story gives one enough information to seize Waldman’s Nathaniel Piven as a bright but flawed and emotional human being:
He had done his share to create [his post break-up] situation [with Elisa], and he knew it…
“Just so you know, it wasn’t about sex,” [Elisa] said… “I just wanted to be held…I wanted, for a little while, not to feel alone. You know?”
“I know,” he said. As he picked up his messenger bag and closed the door to her apartment, he too wanted to cry. (40)
It’s this kind of portrayal of her own characters that drew me in as a reader as I continued to invest myself into her novel. As Nate opens himself up to consciously accepting Hannah’s terms – “she wasn’t looking for something casual” (84) – the novel begins to pick up and their relationship slowly unfolds.
On their first date, Nate and Hannah get into a conversation about their pursuit for writing. Each taking a jab at their past, Nate at one point talks about his own upbringing:
“[He] didn’t grow up in a fancy intellectual environment but [he] was determined not to stay [content]…[he had] met kids whose parents were politicians and Washington Post columnists. [He] knew [he] wanted that, what their parents had. [He] felt like if they had it, there was no reason [he] couldn’t” (49).
Nate says many things in his many monologues throughout the novel and this definitely is one of the first signs of his feeling of entitlement. But what exactly is it that Nate wants? Hannah asks him.
“On the one hand, to do something interesting,” he said. “And on the other, to be admired for it.”
I liked Nate’s response. And as he later recalls to himself: “success was something that just happened…if you were deserving, it was bestowed by the same invisible hand that ensured that the deli would have milk to drink and sandwiches to buy….” (50) But he admits that its more complicated than that – that is, one’s very ambition and writing.
Throughout the novel, readers also bear witness to the short attention span of a man, or more specifically, a man holding neurotic tendencies to over-think situations and be put off by others. Specifically when it comes to a friend’s appraisal, or as it so happens in his date with Hannah, his friend Jason:
“Still, the thought of his friend’s appraisal – Jason would probably call Hannah a seven (“coworker material”) – bothered Nate. He didn’t like the idea of dating girls Jason wouldn’t. That seemed wrong, since Nate was clearly the better person – more successful as well as more deserving” (52).
Coming back to Nate and Hannah’s conversation about their writing, Hannah offers an interesting insight to how she views books and writers:
“Oh, I don’t know,” Hannah said…”I think it’s vanity to want it both ways. You know, to want to write books because that’s your thing but also to want to be treated like a rock star” (53).
Later on in the story, we finally get a hold on a new character in the form of Aurit, Nate’s best girl friend – an interesting character that reoccurs in the novel.
Aurit had once espoused a system of categorizing people that he found useful. She said some people were horizontally oriented, while others were vertical.
Horizontally oriented people were concerned exclusively with what others think, with fitting in or impressing their peers.
Vertically oriented people were obsessed only with some higher “truth,” which they believed in wholeheartedly and wanted to trumpet no matter who was interested.
People who are horizontally oriented are phonies and sycophants, while those who are entirely vertically oriented lack all social skill – they’re the ones on the street shouting about the apocalypse.
Normal people are in the middle, but veer one way or the other (78-79).
As it happens to occur, Hannah doesn’t give in to sleeping with Nate right away. Although he stayed at her place for the night, Nate decides to wait and put off calling her. Aurit, in turn, reprimands him:
“I just hate the way so many men treat ‘dating’ as if it’s a frivolous subject…Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you” (79).
Dating in a nutshell.
Or as Nate essentially says in response to that: #firstworldproblems
Classic Aurit. Take whatever she was personally interested in and apply all her ingenuity to turning it into Something Important. It never occurred to her that there was anything more worth caring about or thinking about than upper-middle-class women’s search for happiness…
“I don’t know,” Nate said… “It’s easy to overstate the importance of whatever you’re personally affected by…I just don’t think dating is quite the scourge of modern life you’re making it out to be. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It’s just one aspect of life and certainly not the most important one” (79-80).
As Nate moves past his fear, he recognizes how “he and Hannah were soon going to move past new-person territory,” (84) a marking point in making their relationship official.
Perhaps the salient issue was not why but simply that he didn’t want to be in a relationship. His work fulfilled him, and his friends provided all the conversation and companionship he needed.
…Nate wanted to argue…that women want to be in relationships because on a gut level they don’t like being alone (85).
Sometimes he remembered how lonely he had been in high school and the early part of college, even in his early years in New York…Surrounded by friends and reasonably established, he felt lucky. He knew he’d been lucky (89).
Nate and Hannah’s relationship starts off well. However, as unspoken tension builds up, it’s hard not to see it’s eventual doom slowly surface and unveil itself:
When you’re single, your weekend days are wide-open vistas that extend in every direction; in a relationship, they’re like the sky over Manhattan: punctured, hemmed in, compressed (154).
Hannah speaks of a “vibe” that has been felt for quite a while, that somehow she is “the person forcing [him] to give up [his] freedom” (156). Any opportunity to talk is hindered by Nate, his “thoughts had been far removed from relationship issues, and he didn’t feel like getting drawn into another of those conversations…He didn’t want to feel like the big bad wolf just because he wouldn’t play this particular feminine parlor game” (160).
In an article on the New York Magazine entitled “Letters From the Creative Man-Child: What Writing a Novel Taught Me About How They Date,” Adelle Waldman writes about modern relationships:
“You’ve got to genuinely value not only the other person, but the relationship you’re building.”
Another thing that got to me about Nate was how easily he got bored. I believe that if I had to pinpoint Nate’s demise to a couple of reasons, it would boil down to two. His “boredom,” “critical voice,” and his higher ranking of his career that eventually leads to his doom:
In the process of wheedling Hannah back into good humor, Nate, too, was revived. Having a project – getting back in to Hannah’s good graces – dispelled boredom and silenced that critical voice. He told her (because women love talking about personal life) about Aurit, who was flipping out because Hans was still balking about moving to New York.
“She treats his concern for his career like it’s a transparent excuse. I’ve got to get her to quit that before she really pisses him off” (169).
When their relationship indeed does come to an end, Hannah still admits that she likes him – that “there’s [simply] something about [him]” (186) that she can’t pinpoint. Yet she recognizes that what “[they’ve] become has been sapping something from [her]” (186) and that she needs to feel that Nate is willing to rekindle their relationship – it’s not a solo effort nor is it a one way streak:
“I need to feel like I’m not in this alone, the only one who cares about what’s going on here” (187).
Nate agrees but falls short on his part of the deal. He grows bored and inconsiderate:
“He looked at another woman. Big f***ing deal. He didn’t have the energy right then to deal with this unbearable, this boring tension between the two of them” (196).
His boredom is “broadcast[ed] as contempt for [Hannah]” (197). Exchanges are made once more but this time they officially terminate their relationship: “Relationships shouldn’t be this hard” (200).
Consumed with guilt after ending his relationship with Hannah, he feels terrible:
“…for the person with more power in a relationship to refuse to take seriously the unhappiness of the other, simply because nothing is forcing them to, is the ultimate dick move” (206).
Trying to balance out Aurit’s argument, Nate reaches out to his friend Jason who gives a couple of interesting points himself:
“As a rule, men want a reason to end a relationship, while women want a reason to keep it going. That’s why, after the fact, men look to all the things that were wrong with the relationship, to confirm the rightness of ending it. Women, on the other hand, go back and search for what might have been different, what might have made it work”
“Men and women on relationships are like men and women on orgasms, except in reverse. Women crave relationships the way men crave orgasm. Their whole being bends to its imperative. Men, in contrast, want relationships the way women want orgasm: sometimes, under the right circumstances”(214).
Aurit contradicts: “Men and women both need relationships just as badly; men just don’t know it” (215).
Afterwards, the rest of the novel shifts to Nate’s relationship with Greer, a girl with noticeable differences to Hannah:
Nate was rarely bored. With Greer, there was always some distraction, a crisis or a fight or some fantastic scheme of hers…What Greer lacked in strict rectitude, she made up for in more feminine virtues, such as warmth and compassion. Like Hannah, she was lively and fun to be around. Unlike Elisa, she was willing to do things he enjoyed. She also had a strong caring impulse” (230-231).
His relationship with Hannah had shown him things about himself that he wasn’t entirely proud of, about what he really valued in a woman and what he claimed to value but in fact could live without (235).
What he and Greer has was pretty f***ing good. Moreover, he liked his life, his friends. He was pleased with his progress on the new book; perhaps that was, for him, more important than anything else. He was, whether or not he deserved to be, happy (240).
Perhaps it really did come to Nate’s poor ability to choose a woman…
(By the way, I definitely recommend reading Sasha Weiss’ article in The New Yorker as well.)
“With her eye for social folly in the streets and restaurants of New York, Waldman resembles Edith Wharton. But where the manners and hierarchies of Wharton’s world are highly codified (and the scandal in her books is the arrival of someone who tries to break them), Waldman’s characters are set adrift in a world without clear rules, and they torment themselves trying to figure out if they’ve in fact violated some ill-defined conventions of courtship and sexual etiquette.” – The New Yorker