Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
Rating: 4.75 stars
Source: Library
Buy the Book: Amazon
Summary: "Writer Nate Piven’s star is rising. After several lean and striving years, he has his pick of both magazine assignments and women: Juliet, the hotshot business reporter; Elisa, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, now friend; and Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” who holds her own in conversation with his friends. When one relationship grows more serious, Nate is forced to consider what it is he really wants.

In Nate’s 21st-century literary world, wit and conversation are not at all dead. Is romance? Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a flawed, sometimes infuriating modern man—one who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety, who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down in ways that may just make him an emblem of our times. With tough-minded intelligence and wry good humor The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness—and an inside look at how he really thinks about women, sex and love."

Review:  I feel like both applauding and sighing.  This book has a lot going for it: it's smart, it's revealing, and it'll definitely make you react - either in a positive or a negative way.  It reads like a classic, in that by telling one person's story it tells the story of a whole generation.  (Many others seem to agree that it reads like a classic, since this book could drown itself a hundred times over in all the accolades it has received.)  It was also a very discouraging read, I thought.  But despite the discouragement, I found this book to be very, very insightful.  It made me think a great deal about how we judge our fellow human beings, and, even more, how we judge ourselves.  So while it didn't make me happy necessarily, I thought this book was very much worth the read.

Nate is a protagonist that I won't easily forget.  He suffers from the unfortunate malady of being able to see others' faults very vividly, and yet being unable to see his own. He is ivy-league educated and is very, very smart and socially suave.  This, in Nathaniel's case, makes him suffer from a pretty extreme belief in his own intellectual and social superiority. He doesn't think he is racist or misogynistic, but it's pretty obvious that he is. He thinks he's existential, but he's really just shallow.  His pretentious selfishness and frank shock when others succeed where he didn't is pretty repulsive. His self-centeredness renders him completely insensible to everything that falls outside the sphere of his own preoccupations.  Because he is so incapable of seeing things from anyone else's point of view, he is an extremely limited character, and it is extremely frustrating to be in his head.  And yet, right before you metaphorically break up with him, he says or does something caring. I alternated between pitying, loathing, and liking Nathaniel. Mostly pity, though.

I also pitied everyone who ever dated Nate: both those fictional characters who dated Nate in this book, and the many real people who have dated/are dating the real life Nates of the world.  Dating is an exhausting enterprise, and I've always believed that selfishness is the quickest poison in relationships.  Dating someone this selfish would not be easy.

But Nate's really not a bad guy.  (Which is probably why so many people stick with their Nate-like significant others.)  He has his virtues.  He's not a villain, he's not a hero. He's just a flawed person (who is also an astonishingly bad boyfriend) who just might be able to show you your own weaknesses, and then give you the opportunity to do more with that knowledge than he does.  Nathaniel's greatest love affair is with himself.  Who will your greatest love affair be with? 

This book is a really, really well written description of relationships amid my own generation.  Though it's more cynical than I believe my whole generation to be, we all know Nate.  We recognize others, and even ourselves, in these pages.  This book will frustrate you, and will probably offend you.  But it also might be the best book you read this year.  It's a pretty incredible book, despite (or maybe because) of how frustrating it is to read.  I recommend this book to those looking for something weighty, and to those who aren't bothered by language.

(Side note: This book also left me with a strong distaste for intellectualism. There is a strong likelihood that the next five books I read will be fluffy.)  

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes from the book: "Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is.  You're sizing people up to see if they're worth your time and attention, and they're doing the same to you.  It's meritocracy applied to personal life, but there's no accountability.  We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact - to keep from becoming cold and callous - and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn't spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again.  But who cares, right?  It's just girl stuff" (79).

Review in a GIF:
overwhelmed animated GIF

Bottom Line: This book is frustrating, amazing, overwhelming, infuriating, and occasionally brilliant.  It's guaranteed to get a strong reaction, one way or the other.  I recommend it to adults who have lower bars of sensitivity, as some scenes will be offensive to some.

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