“I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, average thing in the world, the guy who is interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.”
This quote – from toward the end of Adelle Waldman‘s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. – sums the book up perfectly. Well almost. It skews the judgement toward male behaviour which is certainly the intention of the author however I felt Waldman’s careful dissection of relationships – building and destroying them – is as equally telling about women as it is about men. It just so happens that Waldman’s main character is male – Nathaniel (Nate) Piven. And Nate is a bit of a knob. Other words such as self-absorbed and jerk also spring to mind. Thankfully liking a character is not a prerequisite for enjoying a book.
The story is simple – Nate is a rising star in Brooklyn’s literary scene. He’s done his time as a struggling author and is on the cusp of greater things. Despite his successes – a book deal, an attractive girlfriend – at heart Nate is still the small-town Jewish boy who will never quite have the polish that he’d like.
“Nate had been the captain of his high school trivia team. He knew many things – for example, the capital of every African country as well as each nation’s colonial name, which he could reel off alphabetically – but he did not know the kind of things that make a person knowing at Harvard in the fall of 1995.”
The story spans a year or so in Nate’s life and examines his relationships with various women. The women are familiar – Kristen, his first girlfriend; Elisa, his sophisticated but needy ex-girlfriend; Hannah, the attractive and smart hipster; Greer, melodramatic and attention-seeking; and Aurit, the ‘we’re just friends’ friend who stands on the sidelines of the Nate-show passing judgement.
“Over time, Nate began to grow frustrated by Kristen’s lack of literary sensibility, the sheer practicality of her intelligence, as well as a certain rectitude or squareness on her part – in other words, by her essential Kristen-ness…. He started to notice there were women who dressed differently, who wore neat-looking glasses and sexy high-heeled boots and had cool hair that made Kristen’s ponytail seem uninspired.”
Waldman has done a sensational job – I pretty much knew what was going to happen from the outset because the dialogue, characters and particularly the breaking-up scenes were so realistic they felt oddly familiar. But ‘knowing’ Nate and predicting how the story would unfold did not diminish my enjoyment – Waldman’s humour is wry and perfectly paced, and Nate’s voice (as the narrator) is brilliantly balanced between moments of self-importance and self-doubt, keeping the reader just a touch on his side –
“Certainly abstract ideas hadn’t prevented him from enjoying many other things he found philosophically objectionable, such as consumer goods from China, jet travel, Tori Amos.”
There are some meaty themes in this book, particularly around power in relationships and the fact that this objectionable character (that you might also sort of like), was written by a woman. And while I was considering who was to blame in Nate’s botched relationships, I struck a scene at the end of the book that had me thinking. Nate’s friend Jason (who is much like Nate although Nate thinks of himself as morally superior) says this –
“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.”
True? My experience says yes… depending on the power play.
3.5/5 Did I enjoy this book because the plot was so familiar or was that in fact the disappointing aspect of the story? Would I have been more satisfied with an alternative fate (for better or worse) for Nate? Perhaps. Either way, Waldman writes with style and I’ll look forward to her next book.
Nate’s idea of a good night in is pizza for one and a good book. Who am I to argue with that?! My favourite – a perfect margherita pizza (go crazy with the basil).