One of us is wrong, but is it her or me?
Publisher: William Heinemann
First Published: 16th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 19th February 2015
Nathaniel Piven (Nate) is doing fairly well. He writes book reviews, freelances for various newspapers and magazines, and his book proposal has been accepted. Women-wise, he’s also doing well, at least as far as number is concerned. He doesn’t stay with any one person too long; it starts out well and they’re intelligent, attractive, fun, and so forth but after a few months he’s had enough. But that’s okay, isn’t it?
The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P is an extremely pleasurable literary experience. Whilst the official line is that it’s about the literary scene in New York – particularly Brooklyn – there are many interpretations and readings to be had.
“It’s hard not to feel irrelevant in a world where a book that does really well sells maybe a hundred thousand copies. Even the lamest television show about time travel or killer pets would be cancelled instantly if it did that badly.”
The book’s appeal is two-fold. It is half a character study, in which Waldman adeptly takes the reader back and forth between believing the women are at fault and believing Nate is at fault. Whilst Waldman doesn’t exactly hide her thoughts and main points, whether or not the conclusion will have you feeling more for, say, Elisa and Hannah, than Nate, is never quite certain. The other half of the appeal is that this is a book about books – about books, about writing, about the writing and publishing industries, about the people who write articles for a living. Reading the book you may well have that euphoric feeling that I think it’s safe to say everyone reading this review is versed in, simply because you like reading. That feeling that accompanies discussing books that is perhaps stronger and more wonderful for the very fact that, let’s face it, it can be a rare occurrence – be it the discussion of books in general terms (“I liked such and such”) or the more involved debate or conversation of themes and styles. Yet, this said, at the same time the literary conversation between a group almost completely composed of privileged middle-class white people can be difficult to read – and it’s difficult because of the privilege and importance, the smugness they don’t realise they own. As far as reading the book is concerned, it’s often a heavy mix of delight in the subjects discussed, and unease because you know about the rest of the world ‘outside’ (Nate loves to ponder upon the less-privileged, which he does in a quasi-intellectual, distant and affectedly caring way).
Waldman’s writing itself is an interesting beast. It becomes evident early on that Waldman just ‘gets it’: the way you meet someone whom you instantly click with, a person who seems to understand that certain aspect of your personality or interests that no one else ever has, this is the way it feels to read Waldman’s words. It’s not that her subject will resonate with you, rather it’s the way she addresses you as the reader, is intimate and devoid of secrets. It’s the way she delves into detail, the way she narrates. In literal terms, the book is one long exercise in ‘telling’ – in what writers are told to stay away from and readers appreciate not having to read; however Waldman has written what is essentially an account, a third-person past tense story of what happened, and she’s successfully managed to get around the issues of over-detailing and info-dump. The style has allowed her to get right into Nate’s head and give the reader an exact idea of what he’s like; she gives you his inner life. In sum, Waldman has stimulated the effect of first-person narrative despite the limited amount of dialogue and Nate never addressing the reader himself.
The writing style is a bit of a mash-up. It’s not completely literary but it’s not casual or easy either. Waldman favours lesser-used words, long descriptions that you may have to read twice simply because she’s packed her sentences with so-called highbrow terms – this even though it’s likely you’ll know the meaning of the words without looking them up (at least in most cases). Following such highbrow sentences will be a sentence which uses very modern slang. Literary fiction meets ‘at her place where they had chips and guac’.
What’s interesting is that whilst on the surface this writing is incredibly pretentious, that’s both not quite the case and quite the idea. Due to the overall feel of the book it’s hard to say the language is flowery, really. Waldman is highbrow without being highbrow – she makes intellectual and affected language assessable, whilst remaining consciously, pointedly, pretentious.
There is very little plot in this book; it’s all about character – a study of relationships, a what-we-do-and-how-and-why-it-affects-us study. All the characters could easily be exchanged with others and it wouldn’t alter the book because the point is the overriding factor, rather than the people. (Although, this said, you will undoubtedly find yourself feeling sympathy for someone in the bunch and whilst Waldman may spend more time on a particular character you’re ‘able’ to focus on another.) Nate himself could be switched and it wouldn’t matter.
The title is both alluring and mundane. That Nathaniel isn’t afforded a surname is both off-putting in a ‘who cares, he could be anyone’ way, and intriguing for that very reason. One could speculate that Waldman has used the censoring method of Victorian writers and opted for something that could be swapped for something, someone else (it’s interesting to note that Waldman lives in the factual version of her fictional world).
Given the literary, bookish, content of the book, it’s not going to surprise you when I say that references abound. Be wary of the last fifth if you’ve not read Middlemarch as there are minor spoilers. Bask in the paragraph about Nabokov and enjoy the points about less literary works being good reads, too. However, the point I wish to make in this literary regard is something that is more subtle yet, as far as I am concerned, there for the taking. The nod to Gone With The Wind:
He was too tired to think about this right now. He’d think about it when his head was clear. Tomorrow. Later.
The idea of leaving thoughts until tomorrow occurs twice, and this second mention is accompanied by the Scarlett-esque thought that perhaps Nate’s book is the most important thing to him.
Somewhat related to comparisons is the following:
He told her about his book, the way it had evolved in the years he’d spent working on it. He’d first intended to write a scathing critique of the suburbs, featuring an immigrant family with one child. A Son. This son was intended to be the book’s central character, from whose lips precocious wit and wisdom would flow and whose struggles – girls and popularity – would arouse readers’ sympathy. He told her how the novel had started to come together only when his “insufferable” character had been shunted to the sidelines.
If you like the sound of that, even just a little, it’s fair to say bets could be placed on this book-proposal-within-a-book being Waldman’s novel itself.
The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P is first-rate. It has everything to make the avid reader swoon with reader love, it has a writing style to get excited about for various reasons, and it never meanders from the points it is trying to make, points that are worth reading.
If you’ve been wondering about it, you shouldn’t wait any longer, and if you’ve not encountered it previously, you should look into it now that you have. Just don’t expect it to last long, because like Nate’s relationships, it’s fairly short.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
February 20, 2015, 5:10 am
This one sounds interesting. I’d read it simply because it’s a book about books and that’s always a draw for me.
February 20, 2015, 11:10 am
What a very lovely review – just picked this one up from the library and didn’t get far on my first peek – going back to it next, think I need to give it more time or a different mood or something.
February 21, 2015, 6:03 pm
I thought the author really nailed what she was trying to do with this book, too, as you know, and was really impressed that it was (I think) the author’s first published novel. I’m glad you liked it as much as I did!
March 3, 2015, 12:48 pm
Belle: I’d say it succeeds expectations in that respect, even when it’s not a book about books in the usual sense.
Jennifer: Was glad to hear you’d read it. I’m biased I suppose, but I think there food for thought in there no matter whether you enjoy it or not.
Laurie: Yes; she did it really well (to the point where I know I questioned it – the language, for example). Did you read the… I think it was the prequel? I’m not sure I want to but a completely new novel would be excellent.
March 7, 2015, 1:25 pm
I didn’t realize there was a prequel! I just looked and it seems to be a story released in e-book format from the point of view of one of the women Nate is friends with. I wish I had heard about it in time to read it over the holidays, because it’s called New Year’s, but I will definitely read it. Thanks for the tip!