The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
- Adelle Waldman
- Henry Holt and Co.
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Tina Irgang
- July 22, 2013
An acerbic debut novel that follows and satirizes a young, privileged Brooklyn intellectual and his fear of commitment.
The New Yorker’s cover cartoon on March 29, 1976, depicted a Manhattan street scene with New Yorkers going about their business between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River. In the middle distance, beyond the Hudson, floated a rectangle depicting the rest of North America — a square-shaped wasteland with the occasional hill jutting from the landscape, bordered to the north and south by white spaces labeled “Canada” and “Mexico.” Even further away, beyond the Pacific, three shapeless blobs represented Russia, China and Japan.
That kind of insular thinking is at the center of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Waldman’s acerbic debut novel follows and satirizes the young, privileged Brooklyn intellectual — the kind of person who has earnest discussions about the difference between “racism” and “racialism” and writes essays about the “commodification of conscience.”
The novel is narrated by Nate, a freelance writer on the verge of publishing his first book, ill at ease with himself and prone to overanalyzing everything in his life, especially women. This tendency has left him with a sizable amount of relationship wreckage, which becomes increasingly problematic amid the incestuous nature of the Brooklyn dating scene, where an ex-girlfriend can always be counted on to show up at the next party or on a random street corner.
At the beginning of the book Nate encounters Juliet, a woman he used to date, on just such a corner while on his way to a party. It’s an uncomfortable encounter because Juliet has just had an abortion, following an incident with a broken condom shortly after they’d begun dating. Nate stopped calling after the abortion, afraid that “this phone call would lead to an endless string of others, the day at Juliet’s apartment to a regular movie date, all tinged with a sense of obligation.”
It quickly becomes apparent that Nate has a tendency to panic and disengage when he might be on the verge of a deeper emotional commitment. After a fun first date, he waits a week to pick up the phone and ask for another date, knowing that the very fact of his rapport with this woman means a relationship will be inescapable if he continues to see her.
Waldman’s leap across the gender divide in creating her protagonist has an interesting result. She has fashioned Nate into the ultimate archetype of the male relationship skeptic — the cosmic answer to the question, “Why doesn’t he call?” The dynamic Nate injects into his relationships ought to be familiar to anyone who has ever dated. While he distances himself emotionally and overanalyzes his partners’ flaws, those partners become increasingly insecure about themselves, overcompensating with ostentatious displays of affection that alienate him further. Suddenly the relationship ends, without either side knowing exactly why.
While this makes Nate’s relationship dynamics more familiar, it also makes them somewhat uninteresting. Nate is the perfect example of what women fear men might be like: overcritical and relationship-phobic, with a view of women as desperate and manipulative. As a result, it is hard to relate to Nate.
Waldman creates a foil for Nate, someone to argue the point of view that society generally assumes women take toward relationships. Nate’s friend Aurit takes him to task for delaying too long in calling his dates, and she believes firmly that women are always ready to be in a relationship. “The thing that I think sucks,” she tells Nate, “is that whenever you — men, I mean — decide that it is the right time, there’s always someone available for you to take up with.”
The novel is most engaging when it focuses on satirizing the political and social attitudes of overeducated young writers. Despite Nate’s feelings of guilt “when a blank-faced Hispanic or Asian man refilled his water glass at a restaurant,” and his general awareness of his privileged life, he never seems to take action to address the social ills he spends much of his time lamenting.
Waldman’s observations about Brooklyn’s intellectual culture and its inflated sense of self-importance are sharp-witted and ring true. The best example is the juxtaposition between Nate and his friends with Nate’s ex-girlfriend Kristen, who is the ultimate opposite of his “do-nothing” approach to social guilt: she is a pediatric oncologist, who does charity work in her free time and adopts dogs from a shelter. Following another relationship disaster, Nate calls her to vent and realizes midway through the conversation that, compared with her life, “his problems were those of a decadent New Yorker who whiles away his time on self-indulgent personal drama.”
But Nate quickly convinces himself that Kristen lacks real compassion for others (read: him); that she in fact feels “contempt for those who didn’t manage their lives as competently — or as shrewdly — as she managed hers.”
Ultimately, Nate’s cynical attitude makes The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. too heavy for those looking for a light summer read. At the same time, the relationships the book depicts are too formulaic to be satisfying explorations of how we relate to each other.
The novel’s strength is mostly in holding a mirror to a certain self-obsessed type of Brooklyn intellectual with a view of the world that vastly inflates the borough’s own cultural significance. This is a book best read by those who encounter, and are frustrated by, this attitude on a daily basis. For those without a New York City area code, there’s little to cherish.
Tina Irgang is a full-time editor for a business-to-business publishing company. When she’s not writing or editing, she reads anything and everything.