I liked The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (her 1st novel) more than I expected to. This portrait of a caddish, former-nerd 30-year old Brooklyn freelance writer and his love affairs sounded very Girls-ish, and probably fun but shallow. But it turned out to be a better novel than that. Things I liked about it:
- it offers a vividly detailed, often witty portrayal of a very particular place and time — hipster literary Brooklyn today — inhabited by equally particularized individuals who are also types; Nate and Hannah are quirkily particular, but one also always sees how they’ve been shaped by broad socio-cultural dynamics. (Odd that she’d be named Hannah given the inevitable comparisons with Girls (whose protagonist is named Hannah Horvath)… But it seems that Waldman’s been working on the novel for a while. There’s also the great Vampire Weekend song “Hannah Hunt” come to think of it.)
- It’s good on the gender dynamics, and particularly the balances of power between men and women in the urban dating market (shifting more in the men’s favor by age 30). Waldman implied in an interview that she decided to make the male character the main protagonist as a challenge to herself and (I think she said this?) to ensure that the novel did not become too autobiographical. One does feel that Hannah, Nate’s love interest and one of his girlfriends — a smart, pretty but not gorgeous, witty writer-editor type — must have a lot of the author (and her friends) in her. And I did feel that this strategy worked well; we sense a lot of personal investment and experience in the depictions, but the novel’s focus in Nate rather than Hannah keeps it from falling into certain autobiographical-novel paths.
- [That said, probably my one criticism would be that at moments the free-indirect-discourse dipping into Nate's thinking can feel rather broad in its critical perspective: "But did any of it make him an asshole? He had never promised her anything..." Early on you quickly feel, "yes, this guy is an asshole," and then the novel guides you toward at least limited sympathy for him.]
- Perhaps along slightly comparable lines to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot [my post about that one], it’s deeply steeped in a longer history of the novel and does some interesting things in updating marriage-plot novelistic conventions for our moment. Here is Waldman’s recent essay on how she stopped being a Richardsonian and learned to appreciate Henry Fielding. And in this NYT interview she explains how Balzac’s Lost Illusions was a “lodestar” for her own book: “It nails the literary scene in every city, in every time,” she said. “A sense of people being motivated by a mix of idealistic commitment to the arts and love for it and vanity, ego, ambition.” [Oh and I just saw on Waldman's Twitter feed that she's an Elizabeth Gaskell fan and recommends Wives and Daughters. Yes! -- that might be my pick for the best-but-least-known Victorian novel.]
- The novel is satirical and brightly amusing about Brooklyn/ NYC literary-world mores, but also has a strong undertow of sadness in its portrayal of relationships and the ways these young men and women use one another, strategize, and develop layers of self-protecting cynicism, irony, and low expectations about romance.
- It was fun to think about possible models for certain characters– e.g. is Greer Cohen, the sexy & flirtatious recipient of a big advance for her “memoir about my teenage misadventures,” a version of Elizabeth Wurtzel? (Or am I out of date…)