07 January 2014 by

'I Identify With Him Uncomfortably' - One Writer On The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P

Adelle Waldman's 'The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P' was one of the books of 2013. With its clever distillation of modern relationships it cut to the heart of how urbane relationships work. Writer Oscar Rickett gives his take on the novel.

Adelle Waldman’s brilliant and uncomfortably true debut novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P”, is about how hard relationships can be. For its entitled but sensitive protagonist Nate, the plethora of female options available to him is like the smorgasbord of gentrified Brooklyn eateries in which he can enjoy an overpriced brunch. Human beings are simply another commodity, another option on the menu and anyway, perhaps he’d rather be “at the non-gentrified diner on his street”. I identify with him uncomfortably, knowing that the smart, attractive women of his Brooklyn are not so different from the smart, attractive women of my East London.

I have heard and dread hearing again, variations on what Hannah, Nate’s girlfriend, tells him when they break-up. She says Nate suffers from “the affliction of shallow morons everywhere… the guy who is interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her”. It can be hard to feel sure about someone and when you don’t, guilt, a fear of being disliked or vanity can lead you to voice “some seriously profound existential shit” rather than tell the person you’re with a simpler, more upsetting truth. I have, though, felt this more keenly from Hannah’s point of view, as someone who believed the “existential shit” I was fed by a woman breaking up with me for far more prosaic reasons. 

Nate seemingly finds happiness with the less bookish, more temperamental Greer. “He and Hannah related on levels that he and Greer didn’t”, Waldman writes, but as she knows, desire and intellectual compatibility are two different things and relationships, in my experience, are about an affinity between two people not about moral or intellectual worth.

At one point, Nate wonders if he is punishing Hannah “for some unknown crime? For being nice to him”? It’s a thought that skewers the everyday masochism that can see people need and even enjoy the cruelty of their lover while eschewing their kindness. I have come up with myriad excuses for the cruelty shown to me by girlfriends in the past, anything to avoid accepting their lack of interest or questioning my need to please them. Perhaps, with all our choice and comfort, we feel a lack of turmoil in our society that must be made up for in our relationships. Or perhaps you just can’t choose who you fall in love with.




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