Just how long did it take for debut novelist (and former journalist) Adelle Waldman to write her first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? “To be honest,” she says, speaking on the phone from her home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, “this isn’t my first novel.”
About eight years ago, Waldman was freelancing in New York City while working on her actual first novel. "Except the thing that didn’t get done was actually writing it," she laughs. "I started to ask myself, ‘am I just an SAT tutor with a Word document on my computer?’ ”
When she turned 29, Waldman decided to move back to her parents' house in Baltimore for six months and finish the book. "I was just amazed that it had happened: I had made something with a beginning, middle and an end. I was so euphoric that I wasn’t able to properly assess its quality. I sent it out to agents but it didn’t have the reception that I had hoped for.”
Devastated, Waldman returned to freelancing until her then-boyfriend (now husband) told her to stop being sad and do something about it. So she picked up on an old idea and, three years later, completed The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. The story of the relationships of up-and-coming literary star Nathaniel (Nate) Piven, it’s a novel that brilliantly taps into the modern single-white-male psyche.
“It was something I wanted to explore,” Waldman says. “In the world I was setting the book in, there’s a type of guy I wanted Nate to be.” Selfish, narcissistic, vain—those are just a few of the words that could describe Waldman’s very realistic male protagonist.
Realism was a concern of Waldman’s while writing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., a book that to some extent takes the 19th-century novel as its inspiration. Waldman describes her discovery of Eliot March’s Middlemarch at 20 as “life-changing.”
“I wasn’t well-read in the classics at the time. I was reading these contemporary books that were relatable, about a confused but plucky woman trying to fight obstacles in her path,” she says.
"Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with him.”
Enter Middlemarch, a book with the sort of psychological depth that was a revelation for Waldman. “Their motives, their thinking . . . I learned things about myself that weren’t the most flattering or attractive; I would see aspects of these qualities in [Eliot’s] characters.”
Which leads us back to Nate, whose attitudes toward both women and success might have some readers reacting strongly (and even negatively). Nate embodies the modern urban, educated, late 20s/early 30s male, complete with intimacy issues and a constant need for validation. “One of the things I wanted to do with this book was explore the psychology of Nate and make him feel real,” Waldman explains. “I tried to step back from the question of likability. I didn’t know what other people would think of Nate. I’ve gotten such different reactions to him! Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with him.”
And there’s good reason to have such a visceral reaction to Nate. Readers watch him fall in love with, then slowly become disinterested in, his charmingly cool girlfriend, Hannah. There’s no particular reason for the cooling of their relationship. Half the time, Nate gives more weight to how his friends perceive his girlfriend than to his own feelings for her.
In relationships, says Waldman, “there are these unattractive thoughts about status. In order to be realistic, to treat it seriously and analyze it, I had to get at things that are uglier.”
Speaking of feelings people don’t like to admit, we couldn’t help but ask her about one important passage in the book, where characters analyze the virtues of “masculine” versus “feminine” writing. Muses Nate, “the kind of writing he preferred seemed inherently masculine. The writers who impressed him weren't animated by a sense of personal grievance. (They were unlikely to, say write poems called ‘Mommy.’) . . ..[W]hen he read something he admired, something written today—fiction, nonfiction, didn't matter—there was about an 80 percent chance that a guy wrote it.”
Does Waldman know male writers who feel this way?
“Having been in Brooklyn for a while, around this literary world,” she says, “there were these discussions in the air. I wanted to address it plausibly. I felt there were things that [some] men think that they’re not going to admit to women—or in their own books—because it makes them look misogynistic.”
Waldman also reflects on how, as a female author, she doesn’t have the option of disregarding how her writing will be received. “I think about it all the time, because we have to,” she says. “Our writing gets pigeonholed as women’s writing.”
It would be a mistake to pigeonhole this unsentimental look at the tumultuous world of the young and single literary set. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. resounds with brutal honesty. With a daring and original voice, Waldman reveals the inner workings of the “typical” guy in this powerful and intelligent novel.
Megan Fishmann writes from San Francisco.
Read our review of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.