Don’t dismiss Adelle Waldman’s excellent debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. as chick lit. Sure it has the central characteristic associated with the genre: beautiful young women and handsome young men looking for romance; sometimes they find it; often they don’t. But where chick lit puts the emphasis on the chick, Waldman’s book puts it on the lit. If serious readers put down chick lit as pap for day dreaming, whether justified or not, pap is in no way a fit description for what Waldman has done in this remarkable novel.
In Nathaniel Piven, she has not only created a spot on portrait of a caterpillar become a butterfly, she has created a character that could well stand as the model of the self-absorbed male millennial. As a youth, he found himself on the edges of the in crowd — not particularly good looking or athletic, but smart, intelligent enough to use his brains to ingratiate himself. But in college, Harvard no less, he blossoms. He fills out; he looks good. And when you’re talking about Harvard, brains do more than ingratiate. Women, it turns out, pretty women, smart women, are attracted.As the novel opens, college is past and now in his thirties, Nate is living in fashionable Brooklyn, although not quite Park Slope. He is making a living reviewing books and freelancing, and most importantly from his point of view he has sold his first novel. He has recently broken up with a bright and good looking young woman, basically it seems because he can’t be bothered with the emotional work involved in a relationship. In effect, he wants all the perks of having a girlfriend, but none of the responsibilities.
Then, at a dinner party, he meets Hannah. And if his picky friend Jason might consider her only a seven, she is bright; she can converse with him on what he considers his level; and she is certainly good looking enough. Romance ensues; it is the course of Nate’s affair with Hannah — its inception, decline and fall—that makes for the bulk of the novel’s plot.
The narrative comes through the point of view of Nate, and Nate’s is not a particularly reliable narrative voice. His evaluations of those around him, especially the women, are not always accurate. His awareness of his own motivations is not always believable. He sees himself as the center of the universe and seems unable to recognize that others, especially women, need to be treated with the same kind of respect he gives his male friends.
The Nate who is telling the story is a self-centered prig, who thinks he is the smartest guy in the room. He is not very likeable. That Waldman gets us to believe that not only all the various women he talks about are heels under head over him, but that he is in fact worthy of them, is a major accomplishment. Of course, part of it comes from the fact that we see him through his own eyes, and as far as he is concerned, he’s top of the line. Gradually, as the narrative progresses, more and more we begin to question his reliability, until in the end we see him for what he really is, his values for what they really are. Waldman dissects Nate like a biology teacher dissecting a frog.
Call it comedy of manners. Call it social satire. Don’t call The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. chick lit, not unless you want to come up with a new definition of the term.
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