Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. may have a title that suggests it’s a romance. But devouring it on the plane home from California last week, I was struck by something else. The novel, and I mean this in the best possible sense, seems like the book that Hannah Horvath might someday, if she’s very lucky and learns to be much more observant, might grow up to write about the milieu she’s dying to enter. The story of one young-ish man’s sentimental and sexual education, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows its titular character as he learns what makes a relationship good for him. But that doesn’t mean it has a happy ending.
Waldman’s main character, a soon-to-be-first-time-novelist named Nathaniel, has spent much of his life looking for someone to be superior to, and a space in which he can be a big fish, even if that isn’t the way he’d describe what he’s doing. As a teenager, it’s his friends: “There was something that rubbed Nate wrong about Todd and Mike’s attitude towards girls,” he recalls, “their implicit belief that whatever befell a foolish or unattractive one was her just deserts. Empathy, they reserved for the best-looking girls. (Amy’s most minor setbacks, a B-plus, or a mild cold, elicited coos of grave concern.)”
When he gets to Harvard, Nate gets two new hierarchies to choose from: the moneyed privilege of his roommate, Will, which Nathaniel can glom onto briefly, but never really replicate, and an intellectual elitism that he wasn’t raised in, but which he can acquire by extremely hard work. “Growing up, Nate discussed current events at the dinner table; as a family, they watched 60 Minutes and Jeopardy!. Apparently, though, some parents read the New York Review of Books and drank martinis,” Waldman explains. “He had only a distant familiarity with the New Yorker and had no idea how easily an apple could be converted into a device for smoking pot. Nate had been 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 kinds of things that made a person knowing at Harvard in the fall of 1995.” It takes time for him to rise, and Nathaniel knows that he can always fall back — when working on a magazine article, “Nate dreaded sounding naive, like the person he’d been in his early twenties, before he learned that writing ambitiously, about big or serious subjects, as a privilege magazines granted only to people who’d already made it.”
But by the time we meet him, he’s found the space in which his writing work carries the kind of social capital he envied at Harvard, and where the passage of time has given him new cachet with a certain circle of women. Waldman explains that:
When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman who already had, or else didn’t want, a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. The one who had boyfriends were careless about the relationships and seemed to cheat frequently (which occasionally worked in his favor). But in this thirties everything was different. The world seemed populated, to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer preoccupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.
And Nate is strangely accustomed to certain conditions. He recognizes that “What he had himself experienced was nothing like the total habituation to being treated badly that he encountered in some of the girls he met his first year in New York,” but that habituation is something that works to his advantage, as women are eager to please and accommodate him. And while Nate is all too willing to think in generalities, including the assumption that “women as a general category seemed less capable of (or interested in) the disinterested aesthetic appraisal of literature or art: they were more likely to base judgements on a things’ message, whether or not it was one they approved of, whether it was something that ‘needed saying,’” he’s strangely unanalytical about the ways in which he benefits from the way other men, writ broadly, have treated women and trained them to behave — or the ways in which he contributes to dynamics he finds distasteful.
Nate becomes repulsed by women who are too apologetic, too eager to please him after he behaves better than men who have actively treated them poorly without attempting to break the cycle that’s taught them to respond that way. When Juliet, who he’s just begun dating, becomes pregnant, Nate convinces himself he’s done the right thing by sticking around for the procedure even though he vanishes almost immediately after, because “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.” But however loud the claxon of his guilt, Nate doesn’t seem to be aware that it might not be firing in all of the correct circumstances, particularly when he becomes involved with Hannah, a woman he initially admires as an intellectual equal, but with whom he becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
All of Nate’s previous relationships or infatuations have involved some sort of mismatch. Kristen, his first long-term girlfriend, is a doctor, working outside the sphere in which Nate has chosen to try to build up his credibility and interests. “At home, he’d read Kristen bits from Proust, and she’d get this pinched look on her face, as if the sheer extravagance of Proust’s prose was morally objectionable, as if there were children in Africa who could have better used those excess words.” Elisa, his previous long-term girlfriend, also works in publishing, and begins dating Nate at a point when he’s reached a certain level of professional success, but she’s taking a different path: “She was taking great care not to become someone fringy like Nate, at home in his underwear, sweating up his sheets, pondering such questions as whether he should take the earned income tax credit if he was qualified, or if that would be wrong, since it was clearly intended for real poor people, not Harvard grads who eschewed regular jobs to pursue their idiosyncratic intellectual ambitions.” Her conventionality both rebounds to Nate’s credit — she’s an entry point into the upper echelons of publishing he’s only recently felt secure in, as well as to good tables in nice restaurants — and allows him to feel as if he’s more authentic than Elisa is, especially as she gets stuck in an assistant post. And when Nate meets up with his high school crush, Amy, she makes him uncomfortable because “The things that made him feel successful in his own circle simply had little resonance outside that circle. It bothered him that Amy’s inability to see him the way he wanted her to — as a success, as her equal — got to him. Why should it matter?”
Hannah should solve his problems, at least in theory. She’s the same sort of writer Nate is, but a bit further behind the curve that he’s already traveled: freelancing to pursue a project about which she’s intensely passionate. He initially likes her because she’s willing to argue with him, because she has her own taste, because she’s not immediately, desperately eager to please him, or even to sleep with him.
But once again, Nate finds fault. Professionally, “his main criticism of her, in terms of writing, was that too often she wasn’t ambitious enough. She should treat each piece as if it mattered, instead of laughing off flaws proactively, defensively, citing a ‘rushed job’ or an ‘editor who’d mess it up anyway,’ or referring to the insignificance of the publication (‘How many people even read such-and-such magazine anymore?’).” Sexually, Nate’s unwilling to be frank with Hannah because “The other kind of sex talk, about what felt good and what didn’t — this thing of giving instructions, saying ‘touch me this way,’ ‘please do this, not that,’ even ‘faster’ or ‘harder’ — he found, had always found, excruciating. The prospect made him feel lecherous and animalistic and most of all unsexuy, as if whatever modicum of sexiness he possessed was derived from careful, curatorial self-preservation.” But he’s horrified when he looks at her during sex one night and finds her essentially bored. Nate thinks he’s a nice guy and a good boyfriend because all of the things he doesn’t say to Hannah, but the novel is full of his omissions and silences, his refusal to reassure Hannah, or to be honest with her in ways that would allow their relationship to grow and move forward. In short, Nate’s unwilling to treat her like an equal partner in their relationship because he doesn’t actually want one, or to be in a position to be criticized and grow himself.
Where Nate’s found himself is comfortable, and comforting. He’s got work, and he’s got women. In the matter of the latter, he’s happy to be superior only by comparison to his peers, rather in relation to an ideal. “When he was younger, he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter as much,” Nate thinks. “Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realized it wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t even particularly shallow. Many of his friends were far colder and more connoisseur-like in their attitudes toward women’s appearances, as if the tender feelings that had animated the crushes of their younger years had been spent.” When it comes to the former, Nate’s secure in himself, though towards the end of the novel, Eugene, another writer, is nipping at his heels, or at least has been quicker to pitch a piece Nate wanted to write.
But while Nate is able to appreciate Eugene’s work, he settles in a less attractive place when it comes to women. After his relationship with Hannah ends in what seems like inevitable recriminations, Nate begins another relationship with a woman named Greer. Like Hannah, she’s a writer, but unlike her, Greer is a memoirist, rather than an intellectual. She’s willing to leave Nate to his friends and to his arguments, to appreciate his cachet, but she has no need to challenge him, and Nate feels no need to judge her by his own professional standards because he doesn’t see her work as important. In other words, Greer is happy to be inferior to Nate in every way that counts to him. “He and Hannah had related on levels that he and Greer didn’t,” Nate This was not, for Nate, a comfortable thought. His relationship with Hannah had shown him things about himself that he wasn’t entirely proud of, about what he really valued in a woman and what he claimed to value but in fact could live without.”
This may be the end of growing up, the place where Nathaniel P. finally learns what he really needs, and is able to stop hurting other people, mostly women, as a result. But it’s an awfully sad place to finish in.