Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., new to paperback this week, was one of the pleasures of last year, a book with such a witty 19th-century voice, so creepily accurate about life in Brooklyn as a freelance writer and a self-made literary type, that after reading it, it was hard to not see things through its lens — or to imagine Waldman in the back of the room at any party, taking copious notes. A recent Observer article on how Nathaniel P. connected with readers begins with a 23-year-old woman in finance (who hadn’t read the book), calling a potential paramour “Nathaniel P.” Admittedly, I may have even written an email last year that included a sentence like, “Don’t waste your time on someone living that Nathaniel P. life, my friend.” (And yes, that waste of time does work for a New York-based media company.)
Beta males getting skewered by a young woman’s unerring eye: it’s irresistible — at least to this reader, who gets this subculture. Beyond the smart writing, the book resonated with me in a way that books about fly-fishing may resonate with others. A big part of the appeal is Waldman’s reserved tone in writing, the way that the narration feels like a David Attenborough voiceover, observing these characters in the wild. It makes the human comedy land, and is likely why the book garnered so many strong reactions.
To celebrate the paperback release of Nathaniel P., there’s a short story, a sort of ebook prequel currently available for your ereader: “New Year’s: Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of His Friend Aurit.” Waldman’s voice is still deliciously wry and thorough, evoking classic novelists from Jane Austen to George Eliot. Yet this one is told from the perspective of Aurit, Nathaniel P.’s smart, brutally honest female friend.
It is a short story that is, essentially, about the dreaded Friend Zone and how people get placed within it. What’s revealing about it is that Waldman understands the posturing and jousting that characterizes lots of people’s interactions, with a sensitivity towards what’s going on underneath the bluster. We learn more about Aurit’s journey from awkward immigrant girl growing up in Newton, Massachusetts to young woman who is appealing to men by the time she gets to the University of Chicago. (As someone from Massachusetts, Newton is a very accurate choice of hometown for someone who grows up to be literary-minded in Brooklyn — for one, it’s the hometown of nearly every vaguely literary-minded former star of The Office.) She’s sharply observant on the dynamics between male and female friends, and how that shifts with age. Nathaniel P. appears again, and he’s as appealing and also as much of a dick as ever, and you get why and how he’s been able to glide through life so smoothly.
There are passages that will make some readers say, “Yup, I’ve been there,” or, “Thank God I’m not them.” One sentence, in particular, about being a single lady is brilliant:
But no matter what she wanted — and no matter what she was about — there was a way in which, by virtue of her gender and marital status, in the eyes of the world a certain sadness was imputed to her in ways both subtle and pervasive: the pitying smiles, for example, the ones she was beginning to get when she said she was singly. How fucking insulting! And presumptuous. But the perception got under her skin more than she wanted it to.
Social mores have changed with this generation, but in certain aspects they’ve remained frustratingly universal. Perhaps they’re embodied by the alarmist articles about “hook-up culture” that appear at least once a year. Waldman is doing a wonderful job showing what people’s romantic realities are in an age of easy sex and difficult love, and she may be looking over my shoulder right now as I write this; she’s that accurate. “New Year’s” expands the world of Nathaniel P., enough so that it’s a bit of an argument that a film or TV adaptation would be amusing — I suppose you’d need a baby Noah Baumbach to make it work — and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.