“You are going to love The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P,” a friend told me this summer. “You’ll recognize every. single. character.” There’s nothing I enjoy more than a nice gossipy book that describes a milieu I’m familiar with, so I downloaded the novel that night. In its pages, debut novelist Adelle Waldman takes an uncomfortably close magnifying glass to a group of Harvard-educated, Brooklyn-dwelling literati and journalists. Wait, my inner voice cried out, as the narrative laid these characters’ petty foibles bare, this isn’t me. I mean, I may have been educated at that fabled university, but now I live in far away Harlem and besides, most of my crowd are progressive journalists, not mainstream journalists (meanwhile, I’m still trying to break into the literati). But whom was I kidding? This is 100% a novel about my universe, and I did indeed recognize its cast quite intimately.
As Elissa Goldstein did, I thought Waldman was masterful in particular at dissecting of Nathaniel’s psyche. This reminded me of George Eliot and Edith Wharton’s shared knack for profound portrayals of shallow characters (I immediately think of Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda) who glimpse of something finer in themselves but can’t access it. Doing something well that George Eliot did well–that’s no small feat on Waldman’s part.
Beyond that, she’s also nailed something in our culture, or at least a privileged heterosexual segment of it. Nathaniel is smart, hyper-observant, and has the right political views. But ultimately, as Goldstein writes, “He says he wants a smart, feminist woman, which is not untrue, but what he really wants is a sexy, conventionally pretty one.” This is maddeningly familiar. I always think back to a snowy evening in a courtyard in college, when a male friend of mine looked at me beseechingly and said, “Sarah, can you explain this whole feminism thing to me? I want to be down with it, but I find it perplexing.” At that point I did exactly what one of the female characters in “Nathaniel B” would do. I said something vague with a half-laugh, hoping to avoid a discussion that would cause me to lose the male approval I still craved despite said feminism.