Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. : a Profile of the Millennial Male

Adelle Waldman's debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. received widespread critical acclaim, and she was heralded as a modern-day Austen, defining the new social and sexual mores of our time. Her fine eye for the subtleties of relationships between men and women in this brave new world is unparalleled. While Nathaniel P. might be interpreted as a feminist critique and skewering of the Millennial male's ineptness in romantic life--and indeed many critics have portrayed it as such--Waldman displays so much empathy for Nathaniel as a character and as a man beset by challenges for which modern culture has left him ill-equipped and poorly socialized that the reader is apt to view him in a sympathetic light.

Is he a coward? A rake? Does he lack the capacity to love? These qualities might be inferred by his female friends and perhaps quite a few female readers based on his treatment of women in the novel. Yet they are hardly the truth. The truth is he feels vulnerable and disconnected in many intimate situations with his girlfriend and ex-lovers, he fears and often rejects his own feelings of intimacy with women, he is rakish often when emotionally troubled or tempted by an ex, and he does have the capacity to love, yet it is buried under so many layers of cynicism and bravado that serve him as a fortification against feeling deep emotions.

One reviewer, Allison Amend (author of A Nearly Perfect Copy) wrote, "Nate is so convincingly drawn you'll want to hug him, lecture him and shake some sense into him simultaneously." Hannah, Nate's girlfriend and primary love interest--we follow the course of their relationship from start to finish--seems to be a most eligible young lady. Almost universally regarded as "pretty and smart" or "smart and pretty" she seems to be Nate's ideal type, and he hones in on her quite ardently.

Pride and Prejudice begins with the "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Times have surely changed since the days of the early 19th century's British landed gentry. If we were to rewrite this sentence for Nathaniel P., a Millennial "up-and-coming" writer of the bohemian set in contemporary Brooklyn, it might read: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man who is making a modest living as a freelance writer in Brooklyn must be seeking to get laid with hot, bookish chicks." Like many Millennials, Nate is renting an apartment in a big, desirable city in a gentrifying neighborhood, working multiple jobs with no stable means of income, and unable and uninterested in home ownership (economics suggest he would only be able to live in some place like Utah or Oklahoma if he took this route anyway). Marriage or even the possibility of "settling down" without marrying seem light years away. It is an undeniable fact that Nate's paltry housing, low income, freelance job and deep devotion to writing as well as a drive to advance his career, and the lifestyle of living in a huge, permissive and anonymous city all effect his relationship with Hannah and his attitudes toward women, sex, and romance.

But neither is Nate's character the sum total of the sociological factors effecting him. Waldman explores his deep psychological makeup, from his early encounters with the opposite sex, to his new intellectual elitism in college and his friendship with the brash, intelligent, yet strident Jason.

I have never encountered a female writer to write so fluently from the male point of view. Waldman's insights into the male psyche are astonishing. The experience of reading this book was like talking with a lifetime friend who is honest enough to expose both your strong points and your weaknesses, yet still love you no matter what. You feel your friend often understands you better than you understand yourself. By relating to Nathaniel P., his struggles, often heroic, sometimes disappointing, we get a better understanding of ourselves as men. Not only that, but Nate is the quintessential Millennial man. Not a mover and a shaker, but an up-and-comer, just like you and me. He's making his own way, but the going's tough. And he's confused, very, very confused. Bombarded with dissonant opinions, especially concerning dating and romantic advice (the two primary unsolicited advice-givers are mainly his friend Jason, the macho intellectual meat-head, and Aurit, the thoughtful, yet doctrinal feminist who blames Nate for making "poor" decisions). The voices Waldman gives her female characters are as finely-tuned and diverse as her male ones and sometimes serve as foils. One finds that, in addition to a thorough character study of Nathaniel's psychology, worldview, and M.O., the emotional range, perspectives, and attitudes of a broad spectrum of women are simultaneously explored by their reactions to Nate (mainly those of his ex-lovers and female friends).

I recommend The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. to any woman looking to understand their boyfriends, husbands, companions, dates, lovers, or male friends better. It should also be required reading for any man who needs to examine himself and find a better path to intimacy that ultimately he knows or will discover he craves.

~ Trevor Swett

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