I first heard about this book when someone put it on their “Best Books of the Summer” list, and shortly thereafter, my beloved Lena Dunham tweeted about it. After having read this book, it makes total sense why she’d love it and recommend it, but in the very best way–Nate P. is a slightly older, male version of Hannah Horvath, her character on Girls. And like Girls, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is about as true of a representation of the plight of the young, white, and upper-middle-class trying to get by while trying to navigate the responsibilities of the real world, maintain artistic integrity, and figure out who you are while also trying to figure out the people around you.
The titular Nathaniel–Nate, as he more often goes by–is a writer who, after years of scraping by as a freelancer, is about to make it big with the publication of his much-hyped first novel. He’s enjoying his newfound position as a fledgling star, occupying a role of power and recognition in New York’s literary scene. However, despite his professional success, he’s still a child in many ways, most obviously when it comes to women. He bounces from woman to woman, stringing them along and breaking hearts, until the day he meets Hannah–a woman who is by no means his type, but who intrigues him and challenges him in ways he’s never experienced.
One of the most impressive things about this novel is that it’s written by a women. Of course, there are plenty of books out there with convincing narrators of the opposite sex from the author, but there are very few that I can think of where an author truly becomes the opposite-sex character. One of the only ones that comes to mind off the top of my head is She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb–it’s crazy that a middle-aged man could so fully encapsulate the voice and experience of a teenage girl, but he does. Granted, Waldman has an easier task in that she’s probably encountered more than a few Nathaniel’s given that she, like him, lives in New York and is presumably part of the literary scene there. But her commitment to the character is truly remarkable and her insight into the male psyche is pretty astounding. I kept having to check Waldman’s picture on the back flap of the book to remind myself that a woman had written what I was reading–Nate is that fully realized and so totally male (complete with observations and beliefs that I, and I’m sure many women, have suspected but rarely confirmed). Beyond that, Nate’s just a great character in general. He’s so real–flawed and completely unlikeable at times, but human enough that you still root for him and want him to figure it all out.
I don’t know that I’ve read a book that so fully represents love and relationships in the millennial generation–this is, to give the closest comparison I can, High Fidelity for a new generation (although that’s a modern classic that will never fail to hold up). Just replace music with books and you’ve got a new version of Rob Gordon, complete with the pretentious asshole behavior and commitment issues (and, of course, the inexplicable lovableness).
There’s not much to say about the book beyond the incredible characterization, because Nate is the whole story. The plot is overall uneventful–it’s more a meditation on the women Nate has loved, and his attempt to sort out what they mean and where he’s going in his mind. It’s a very internal narrative, without a lot of external action, but it works. I’ve seen this book criticized as being pointless or navel-gazing, but I didn’t think that at all. The plot is not the point here.
I highly recommend this book–it was one of the best I read this year.