Book Review -- The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
For me, never -- until Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.*
Waldman explores what it's like to be Nate, a young man living and working in the literary world of New York City, as he navigates a dating world fraught with contradictions and comparisons. His pattern: he likes a woman, dates her for a bit, then slowly things unravel due to his behavior.
The unique twist here, is that, none is his behavior is outlandish or unusual. We witness him forgetting to call someone back after a first date, avoiding the "what are we" conversation with a new lover, or slowly fading out of a relationship a few months after it begins. Basically, things that happen all the time, for men and women, but things that are frequently poised as "what men do."
His interactions with one girlfriend serve as a shining example of the old maxim that people want what they can't have, and when they get it, they tired of it easily. With Nate, though, we're given a front row seat to the inner workings of his thoughts and emotions -- as he asks himself why he is losing feeling for someone, as he realizes he's being a bit of an asshole but can't quite make it right, and so on.
See this exchange between Nate and Hannah, the "smart and nice" girl he likes, but not enough. Instead of breaking up with her directly, he gives her the silent treatment, picks fights and eventually finds himself in this conversation:
Nate: "Sometimes I think I've lost something, some capacity to be with another person, something I used to have. I feel pretty fucked, to tell the truth."
Hannah: "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, 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."
What Waldman provides is a different sort of commentary on dating and relationship, on sex and love and attraction. Parts of the novel are, admittedly, kind of sad and the ending isn't a happy or clear one. Regardless of your gender as a reader, you'll recognize many of the situations that Nate finds himself in, and either feel as though you've been in his shoes before or you've been in the role of his romantic interest in question before. For example, this line about people "being the new person versions of themselves: attentive, polite, and good-humored." Who can't relate to that?
We know the games we play in relationships and dating; we know the falsehoods and trap doors; and yet, we aspire to be understood and loved more than we usually aspire to understand and love another person. Nate repeatedly views himself with derision and empathy, with kindness and frustration -- just as we see ourselves in our own lives, and just as we see him as a character in the novel.
Waldman isn't afraid to base dialogues or parts of the story on strong stereotypes, most of which are male-oriented in a us v. them (them being women) theme. Nate's friend, Jason, declares at one point, "As a rule, men want a reason to end a relationship, while women want a reason to keep it going." As a woman, I automatically want to call bullshit on that ... and I will ... but at the same time, I get what he's saying because I've seen that stereotype play out before.
Consider, too, this train of thought Nate has after talking with his only platonic girl friend, Aurit:
"They [Women] were as capable of rational thought; they just didn't appear to be as interested in it. They were happy to apply rational argument to defend what they already believed but unlikely to be swayed by it, not if it conflicted with inclination or, worse, intuition, not if it undercut a cherished opinion or nettled their self-esteem. So many times, when Nate had been arguing with a woman, a point was reached when it became clear that no argument would alter her thinking. Her position was one she 'felt' to be true; it was, as a result, impermeable. Even self-consciously intellectual women seemed to be primarily interested in advocacy, using intellect to serve a cause like feminism or the environment or the welfare of children, or in the interpretation of their own experience. . . . The fact that something made her [Aurit] feel bad was reason enough to reject it. She didn't even like it when Nate mentioned things outside her ken. If he got to talking about philosophers she hadn't read--which is to say, most of them--her face would grow taut, tight-lipped, with a pulsing around the temples, as if Nate, in talking about Nietzsche, were in actuality whipping out his cock and beating her with it."
It's hard to like Nate very much after that passage, and at the same time, you can feel his frustration trying to figure out how to talk to Aurit in the same way he talks to his male friends on certain levels. I think Waldman intends to apply pressure here from Nate's standardized point of view, so that her readers ask themselves, "Is this true? Who do I relate to in this scene, Nate or Aurit, and why?"
Waldman shines the brightest during these little exchanges, all of which serve to underscore her point(s): that relationships are murky and difficult, that man of our gender expectations are confusing or unfair or incorrect, that men have the same anxieties and hesitations as women about dating, that mixed signals continue to be the foundation of many romantic interactions, and that communication in general can be fruitless and challenging when it comes to love.
The best excerpt, which arrives as a cold, sarcastic zinger from Aurit:
"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. It's meritocracy applied to personal life, but there's no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact--to keep from becoming cold and callous--and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn't spent this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again. But who cares, right? It's just girl stuff."
Depressing? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Even though a female author writing for a male character is nothing new, the fact that Waldman specifically explores these topics -- often considered (wrongly) by too many to be the realm of "women's lit" or "chick lit" -- from an unlikable, male character is refreshing.
*If you've read other male-POV books by female authors, please share! I'm sure my experience is limited.