New books — From the August 2013 issue

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Does America need another novel about bookish young New Yorkers falling into and out of one another’s beds? Probably not. So I thought until I read Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt, $25), a funny and surprisingly sympathetic examination of the romantic sociopathy of youthful litterateurs.

The novel’s main character, known to all as Nate, is an ambitious thirty-year-old writer with a modest number of broken relationships behind him, a book coming out, and a dismally tender pain in his heart. Nate’s pain derives from an easily accounted truth: when it comes to women, he is a judgmental, manipulative twerp. “When he was younger,” Waldman writes,

he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter as much. Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realized it wasn’t going to happen.

Waldman doesn’t seem interested in condemning, lamenting, or pathologizing Nate’s condition. He’s not some pop-novel stock villain, nor is he held up as any kind of worried-over sociological emblem. Rather, Nate becomes the vessel by which Waldman explores the gender dynamics of a specific place (Brooklyn, mostly) at an equally specific time (now, roughly). Placed throughout the novel, however, are callbacks to the social literature of the nineteenth century — to George Eliot’s work in particular, from the novel’s epigraph to the sly suggestion that Nate may be an echo of Tertius Lydgate from Middlemarch.

Waldman captures smart-enough literary party patter so well (“Zeno’s Conscience, right? Doesn’t James Wood, like, love that book?”) that many of her readers may find themselves squirming in hot-faced recognition. The novel is especially wry whenever Nate and his friends discuss grand ideas for essays: one character wants to write a “hit piece” on the concept of the meritocracy, for instance, because, he explains, for every Jude the Obscure “there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.”

Waldman’s — and, consequently, our — sympathy centers on Hannah, a charming, smart, and decent young woman Nate spends most of the novel by turns hotly pursuing and coldly withdrawing from. Their initial courtship is rendered in sharp, bright scenes that are great (if somewhat light) fun to read; but as Nate grows moodier and crueler, a more observant and merciless novel takes form. Without a trace of cant, Waldman imagines her way into the mind of a talented, callow young man as he slides from one romantic possibility to another, and with equal acuity she imagines a reasonable young woman’s righteous response. Nate and Hannah’s calmly vicious arguments are easily the highlight of the book. In Waldman’s final pages — one of the more genuinely sad happy endings since Lydgate wound up stuck with Rosamond Vincy — no character is condemned or ruined. After all, “wrong reasoning,” as George Eliot wrote, “sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions.”

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