The whole time I was reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild,…
Nathaniel P., part of Brooklyn’s young literati complete with a decent book deal, is on his way to a dinner party at his ex-girlfriend-turned-just-friend’s apartment when he runs into a different ex who, in their brief exchange, shames him for his past bad behavior. His social crime: Getting her pregnant, playing the role of a supportive boyfriend through the trip to the abortion clinic and a day of recovery, calling to check in with her — then never talking to her ever again.
He can justify this. He can justify almost anything: Finding a new girlfriend at his old girlfriend’s dinner party, sizing up one woman while on a date with another, being sickened by his lover’s slack underarms which have defied her devotion to pilates.
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P is a super ugly portrait of modern love among the young and restless.” Nate, the quintessential sexually-entitled asshole, is 30, a freelance writer with a small circle of friends living in a neighborhood on the cusp of hipster takedown. He went to Harvard. That’s one of the first things he would tell you. He had a serious relationship that started in college, but since that ended has soured mightily on women. He’s got plenty of generalizations about how they act and what they say and what it means and and how awful it all is for him. In the meantime, he doesn’t have a hard time finding one or two that are willing to date him and then revel in his loathsomeness in an obsessive way when it all ends.
Mostly the novel focuses on his time with Hannah, also a writer, who seems skeptical of Nate but gradually falls into it with him. She’s smart. His friends like her (though, Nate thinks, they would believe her to be about a 7 on the attractiveness scale and this bothers him — especially when faced with a prettier, yet dimmer woman his friend is dating).
There is the whole Falling in Love, slow dance to the bedroom, and onset of the relationship. Eventually this is upended when, after a bad day, Nate begins to notice the seams in his partner. Her underarms jiggle. Why haven’t her friends told her that he ass looks bad in those jeans. She’s being emotionally manipulative. He begins to pull away from her, then expresses surprise when she’s hurt. It turns into a treat-her-bad, treat-her-awesome tango until they are forced into a series of State of The Relationship convos — each more exhausting than the last.
Technically, the book is okay. It’s full of exposition and unnecessary back stories and occasional filler characters that lend little to the narrative. Plot wise, it’s simple: A party, a coffee shop, my apartment, her apartment, and interactions with women — including an aggressive ex. Still, it’s a struggle to cut it loose. There is something addictive about the entitlement and whining and imagined torture of the titular character. The lecherous looks and manipulation. The way a reader might want Hannah to haul off and nail him in the nuts, but instead she disavows every strong woman sensibility she’s developed in her life to Try to Make Things Work.
There is nothing redeeming about Nate, nothing to make a reader sympathetic to his Inability to Be in a Relationship. Not even the revelation that before he had enough lit cred to wow a woman or two, he had been not-so cool in high school. The kind of guy who attracts the attention of a smart girl with frizzy hair instead of the It Girl whose scrunchy he sniffs in the privacy of his bedroom. Waldman’s book sounds like Retaliation Lit. The kind of words jotted in anger to express a frustration in men trends and incredulousness about how sometimes a smart woman gets her feet stuck in the muck and finds herself uncharacteristically asking in a voice she doesn’t recognize: “Are you mad at me?”
There are two ways to take this book: A reader can get annoyed at Nate, his generalizations and disdain for women and annoyed with the women who sometimes seem to fall right into his unflattering characterizations. A reader can throw her Kindle at the wall and say: “C’mon. Why do I want to read about such awful people?” Or. A reader can ooze through it like reality television. But the real kind of reality television. Hidden cameras, stolen dream journals. Flipping the scab with a thumb nail to see how it attaches to the skin. One might suspect that this ugly, ugly look at Dating in Brooklyn in 20-whatever has enough real to it to make a player cringe in embarrassment and bring back a slide show of a decade of bad decision making.