Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., candidly charts the inner life of 30-year-old Nate Piven as he searches for personal and professional fulfillment. At the novel’s onset, Waldman’s prickly protagonist is on the cusp of great things—his first book (that came with a handsome advance) is scheduled for publication within months and he’s garnering coveted assignments from well-respected magazines. On the romantic front, things aren’t quite as copacetic. “Nate had not always been the kind of guy women call an asshole,” writes Waldman near the beginning of her novel. “Only recently had he been popular enough to inspire such ill will. Growing up, he had been considered ‘nice.’”
Told via a limited third-person perspective, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. gives readers a front-row seat to Nate’s multitude of dates and flirtations with many suitable young women. More recently, there was Juliet, Elisa, and Greer. During his earlier years, there was Michelle and Kristen. As the narrative progresses, the story largely trains on the evolving and then-unraveling relationship between Nate and Hannah.
The idea of a novel told by a narcissistic young man initially started as an exercise for 36-year-old Waldman. “It was like a lark or a dare,” explains the author. “The idea seemed so simple that there had to be a flaw. I was reading novels about smart men from the provinces that come to the city and conquer the world with their intellect—from Roth and Bellow to more recent novels. I thought, I would like to write one of those, but spend a little more scrutiny on the male protagonist and how he treats women.”
As a reader, we are with Nate as he objectifies and judges women. Waldman writes: “Was this so wrong? Why do women get away with pathologizing men for not wanting girlfriends? There are entire Web sites written by supposedly smart, ‘independent’ women who make no bones about calling such men immature at best, assholes at worst.” Indeed, at times, it is painful to witness Nate’s ongoing rationale about his misguided ways with women.
At the same time, Waldman is consistent and convincing in her third-person narrative, never breaking the contract with the reader. We are always squarely in the limited mindset of a bachelor/writer living in an apartment of squalor in Brooklyn. “Nate held his coffeepot up to the light,” writes Waldman. “Its bottom half was a mash-up of pale brown stains with dark outlines, a fossil record of every pot of coffee he’d made since the last time he cleaned the thing.”
Waldman’s strengths as a writer often come through in her vivid descriptions, particularly those of the city. “The chains of white lights lining the cables of the other East River bridges were like dangling necklaces beneath the brightly lit towers, a fireworks display frozen at its most expansive moment,” the author writes. “The view, familiar and yet still—always—thrilling, in combination with the plastic smell of the taxi, made him feel almost giddy.”
“I had years of experience to draw from,” says Waldman, having been single herself in New York City for multiple years before meeting her now-husband, writer Evan Hughes (Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life). “The idea felt like it had a lot of advantages because the character was very, very different from me. It was freeing and easy, and allowed me to see him more objectively.”
Waldman also drew inspiration from 19th century writers, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot (the epigraph of the novel is from Eliot’s historical novel, Romola), and their precise psychological portraits of characters. “I like the idea of writing a novel that is very much of the contemporary world, but also has some of the 19th-century elements,” she says. Other literary sources of inspiration included Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.
Prior to becoming a novelist, Waldman primarily worked as a journalist, first as a reporter at The New Haven Register and then The Cleveland Plain Dealer. After serving as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Waldman decided to hang up her journalist hat and pour her energies into fiction writing full-time. She moved back in with her parents and drafted a 500-page novel in six months. “It was the first time I wrote something with a beginning, middle, and end,” Waldman remembers of her first attempt at a novel. When she didn’t have success selling it, she decided to try a second idea. “Instead of returning to full-time mainstream journalism, I decided to write book reviews and teach, because this kind of work was better suited to writing fiction,” says Waldman.
Was it hard to write a main character that isn’t very likable? “I grappled with the character of Nate, because I found him somewhat unsettling,” Waldman explains. “I wanted to try and make Nate feel real rather than conform to any idea.” In the end, Waldman hopes that she offers an authentic contemporary take on the challenges of today’s urban dating scene. “I think the experience of dating is too trivialized,” she says. “It can be painful. There is a certain brutality, and there are emotional stakes. I hope that comes through in the novel.”
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.