It can no longer be universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a “significant” book advance must be in want of a wife, and Nathaniel Piven is no Mr. Darcy (nor even a Mr. Bingley, if truth be told). But Adelle Waldman just may be this generation’s Jane Austen, as she skewers the mating mores of today’s aristocrats, the young literary elite of Brooklyn, N.Y., in her funny and at times painfully acute debut novel.
Like Austen’s great “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” starts its sharp-edged cultural satire with the appearance of an eligible young man. Nate, as the title character is known, is heading toward a dinner party, and while he has lived in Brooklyn for a few years, he has only just arrived in a social sense. His book has sold, and women — at least, the pretty bespectacled literatae he desires — have begun to pay him the kind of attention he once could only dream about. He should, one expects, be happy.
But this is contemporary Brooklyn, not 1813 England, and Nate is much too obsessive to simply enjoy life. His problems begin on his way to the party, when he runs into a former lover with whom things went horribly wrong. In addition, his relationship with the dinner’s host, an ex-girlfriend, is problematic. “The night would end as their nights so often had, in tears,” he correctly predicts. In telling flashbacks, Nate reveals that this is not an uncommon occurrence for him. At 30, in fact, he has reached the point where he has begun to dread even the most desired sexual encounters as precursors to “the fraught, awkward scene that might ensue after one night or two or three.”
Except that, at that party, he also runs into Hannah, a single woman “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice.” A writer herself, with a book proposal in the works, Hannah should be recognizable to any Austen fan as a Lizzy Bennet, the putative heroine of this book. Nate, whose taste runs to highbrow fare by Italo Svevo or the “left-leaning Israeli novelist” whose book he is reviewing, doesn’t see her as such. He is not only attracted to her physically, but also intrigued by her mind — she is as well read as he is. (“To be honest, that had surprised him.”) Despite his usually crippling fears, they become involved.
Reader, beware: This is not a romance. Nate’s primary relationship is with himself. Although we get a good idea of who Hannah is, and even why she falls for our protagonist, she is peripheral to the story, and in one of the book’s great ironies, Nate — who styles himself a critic — is unable to recognize, not to mention analyze, his own destructive patterns. Instead, he uses his formidable intellect to avoid the obvious — for a while. Despite a “feeling of dullness,” he reassures himself, “everything was going well. Strong blurbs were coming in for his book.” Before long, Nate is being Nate, overthought rationalizations, immature gestures, and all.
Which leads to the great achievement of this book: Waldman’s ability to so completely inhabit this immature man. Nate’s solipsistic and often sexist agonizing feel real. Even being of an age and a gender more prone to want to slap the self-involved Nate upside the head, I found myself sympathizing with his emotional torment, perhaps more so because it is almost entirely self-inflicted. And because he seems so young.
But youth is curable, and the novel ends on a hopeful note. What appear to be the first glimmerings of self-awareness begin to dawn as our callow hero prepares to finally take a chance. That it’s a wrong move seems fairly obvious, but at least it is progress of a sort — one small step toward manhood and maybe, eventually, love.