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Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman | review

And here we have it, my many, many Janeites. The last post of this year's Austen in August. With this one, we're moving out of the realm of true Janedom and into the now, with what many are calling the "new Jane" - an insightful look at the modern social scene. Don't forget you can enter to win this one, but before you dart off, click through to read my thoughts on

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
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242 pages
Published July 16th 2013 by Henry Holt and Co.
Bold, touching, and funny—a debut novel by a brilliant young woman about the coming-of-age of a brilliant young literary man

“He was not the kind of guy who disappeared after sleeping with a woman—and certainly not after the condom broke. 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. Moreover, he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience.” – From The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Nate Piven is a rising star in Brooklyn’s literary scene. After several lean and striving years, he has his pick of both magazine assignments and women: Juliet, the hotshot business reporter; Elisa, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, now friend; and Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” who is lively fun and holds her own in conversation with his friends.

In this 21st-century literary world, wit and conversation are not at all dead. Is romance? 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. With tough-minded intelligence and wry good humor The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness—and an inside look at how he really thinks about women, sex and love.

"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."
I'm in a strange place with reviewing this one, for a couple of reasons. The first is because I was asked to include it in Austen in August, even though it is not really a retelling of any of Austen's works, or even a nod to them. And yet, it also is? More on that later. The other reason is that, it's hard to recommend a book that's all about unlikability... What do you say? "You should read this, you'll have everyone?" Bit of a hard sell, that.  So let's try the soft sell: Adelle Waldman's debut is an incisive look dating, social mores and general douchebaggery.
Okay, I don't know if that made it sound any better.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., for me, is not necessarily something to be liked, but something to be appreciated. No, Nate isn't likable, but does he need to be? Plenty of the most memorable characters in literature are not the least bit likable - but they are fascinating. Is Nate Piven fascinating, then? As a prime example of his "type," sure. He's a dick. But he thinks he's very earnest, he thinks he's very evolved. He pats himself on the back a lot, and makes you want to shake him a little harder each time. But at the same time, you know he's very intelligent, you know he's ambitious and talented. You know he's capable of being charming... maybe he's a sociopath? No, he's too neurotic and guilt-ridden for that, but he has a sociopath's skill-set, to be sure. He coolly appraises each woman he comes into contact with, dismissing them as viable bedmates like a medieval king surveying the the peasants for much the same reason. When Nate does encounter someone he finds suitable - not just attractive, but suitable, momentarily fascinating - he turns on the charm and lures them in, and I'm not even sure he realizes what he's doing.

There are moments when he's assessing what went wrong with a relationship, and he'll compare himself to his male friends and how much worse they are, how much more crass - but he never seems to realize that he does the same, only with less honesty. Nate's got a wandering eye, and the minute it starts to twitch and want to wander, he begins to discover all the many, many flaws each of his girlfriends apparently has. All the reasons they can't make it work, so he shouldn't even bother - and though he sometimes admits that it's probably him, he'll admit in the same breath a thousand excuses... One of my favorite parts of the book is when a character called him on it, because it's what I'd been wanting to say the entire time: "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, the most average thing in the world, the guy who is all 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."

So, if you look for characters you can connect with and root for, Nathaniel P. is probably not your guy. In fact, most of the characters are not all that likable and rootforable. (Except maybe Aurit.) But the way in which this is executed, the ease with which Waldman brings these characters - who never feel like caricatures - to life, is what makes you keep coming back for more. Like Nate, Waldman charms you, she makes you smile, she makes you want to give him a try, give him a second chance. Even when I was hating on Nate (or, not even hating, but being frustrated by Nate, who could be better than this), I was drawn along by Waldman's style and insight. The characters are very real, we know these people, but at the same time, they're just heightened-enough to bring out what Waldman (or Nate) is trying to show us. And this is where Jane Austen comes in, because I can see why this trait, this ability to capture a character on such an honest level, is drawing comparisons to Austen. (And of course, the focus on dating and relationships, though as a Janeite, it just draws it more into focus how times have changed...) Nathaniel P. is a very good character study, and it does have some of that wry, reserved presentation we associate with Austen: we see right through Nathaniel, we understand him while he tries very hard to pretend to understand himself.

Whether this is a book to put on your to-get list is going to depend entirely on what it is you want to get from a story, and how high a tolerance you have for smug, womanizing assholes who always manage to land on their feet and excuse away their failings... So I'll leave that to you to decide.

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1 comment:

  1. I confess that I'm a light weight when it comes to these kinds of books. If I don't like the main character than its torture for me to read their story.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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