It is Waldman’s exquisitely detailed depiction of this very specific demographic, not her depiction of the other gender, that makes The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. a discomfitingly thrilling read. Waldman’s characters picnic in Prospect Park, coo when they spy kale on a restaurant menu, parse the difference between racism and racialism, and complain about the unreliability of the G train. For readers belonging to this sliver of New York, she nails it. (Readers who do not belong to this sliver of New York will probably enjoy the schadenfreude of reading about the unhappiness endemic to said sliver.)
As Waldman points out, we of that demographic are quite a bit less progressive and enlightened in our personal lives than we might like to think. Nate, a former straight-A student at a Jewish day school and a Harvard grad, seems to get involved with two kinds of women. On one side are the pragmatic, competent, reasonable women, like his college girlfriend Kristen, a pre-med do-gooder; Juliet, the briefly pregnant business journalist; and Hannah, the interesting but not conventionally beautiful writer. On the other side are the beautiful, emotionally volatile, intellectually shallow women, like Elisa, the childish assistant to the editor-in-chief of a New Yorker-esque magazine, and Greer, the flirtatious memoirist whom one of Nate’s friends derides for “her willingness to trade on her sexuality and call it feminism.”
Nate is painfully conscious of how the women he dates reflect on his social status. “In theory, Nate disdained bourgeois status signifiers,’’ Waldman writes, “but in practice he took pride in Elisa’s whiff of smart chic.” Before he asks not-so-chic Hannah out, he considers that his piggish friend Jason would rate her a seven; after he’s been dating Hannah for a while, it worries him that another male friend, one whose girlfriend is stunning, might feel sorry for Nate.
Nate is even more painfully conscious that judging women’s worth by their conventional beauty is both intellectually and morally indefensible. His life philosophy is squarely egalitarian, and he wants to be the kind of man who is attracted to a woman’s intellect and character—and he resolutely admires Hannah’s intellect and character. This experience is new to him—compared to the other women he’s dates, he finds Hannah “so … reasonable, so not ridiculous.” So he represses his shallowness, pushes it down until it erupts in snits, uncomfortable silences, an edge in his voice when he’s talking to Hannah. “At moments Hannah seemed to trigger something sadistic in him,” he acknowledges to himself with confusion. “He could swear he didn’t want to hurt her, but sometimes, when she looked at him in a certain way, or that eager note crept into her voice, a perverse obstinacy rose within him.”
Ironically, Nate does the most harm in his attempts to quash his base instincts, his politically incorrect desires. There’s a horrifying and hilarious scene in which he notices that Hannah’s triceps are a little bit flabby and that her jeans accentuate her ass in an unflattering way, and he’s repulsed and transfixed—but then he chastises himself for sounding “like some sick fetishist of female emaciation." He cannot abide the idea that his fading attraction for Hannah might not be logical, that perhaps his dick is not beholden to the same progressive ideals his brain is. So he strings Hannah along, continuing to attempt to justify his feelings with rationality and a perverse sense of justice. (Hannah, for her part, is so terrified of appearing clingy that she affects a less-than-convincing nonchalance.)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is less about what happens when our genitalia bump up against each other as what happens when our genitalia bump up against our ideology. In Nate and Hannah’s social sphere, it is considered bad for men to be stereotypically masculine (i.e., shallow and selfish), and it’s considered bad for women to be stereotypically feminine (i.e., needy and emotional): All feelings and impulses must be intellectually justifiable. This is not true only of Nate and Hannah, who suppress the parts of their personalities they don’t like; Nate has two polar-opposite friends, the male chauvinist Jason and the stridently pro-woman Aurit, who go to great lengths to concoct theoretical grounds for the way they treat the opposite sex. It might be better, Waldman suggests, if we let our hearts want what they want and put aside the liberal ideals and analytical rigor when we’re dating.
It would not surprise Nate that I drew a lesson from the novel about his love life. After all, he thinks “that women as a general category seemed less capable of (or interested in) the disinterested aesthetic appraisal of literature or art: they were more likely to base judgments on a thing’s message, whether or not it was one they approved of.” (Like many of Nate’s condescending generalizations about women, this one hit close to home.) He makes this observation during the course of worrying “whether he was a bit misogynistic.” He is—and if he were to accept that fact instead of suppressing it, he might actually start treating women a little bit better.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. Henry Holt.