Intelligent, sly and witty, Waldman’s internal dialogue of Nathaniel (Nate) Piven could easily fall flat on the page and succumb to its own ordinariness were it not for the author’s ability to capture the vivid flux of Nate’s finely variegated feelings. Submerging us just beneath the surface of Nate’s sexual and romantic liaisons, Waldman presents her hero as a twenty-first century Brooklyn gigolo with an inflated sense of his own intellectual importance.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is about Nate’s self-righteous quest for love. As a thirty-year-old book editor with a career that is finally taking off, Nate thinks that he understands all of life's complications and all of the choices that are available for responsible adults like himself. Nate mostly sees himself as a product of a post-feminist 1980s childhood and a politically correct 1990s college education. He’s also possessed of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience. It takes a tempestuous girl like Hannah, who has “something of the loose-limbed quality of a comic actor,” to truly excite him. Although he confesses that he’s not particularly “shallow,” physical attraction has driven Nate straight into the beds of best friend Elisa and ex-girlfriend Juliet.
Hannah is as flirtatious as ever but also defiant, as if she were daring him to be so prudish as to chastise or pity her. Idealistic yet pragmatic, professionally fearless yet personally vulnerable, Nate firmly believes that Hannah characterizes everything he wants-- “well-groomed, stylishly clad, and expensively educated” in a landscape where girl gossip is rife and hero worship is rampant.
While not particularly plot-driven, much of the action in this story originates from Nate’s ruminations on sex as he becomes evermore besotted with Hannah. The novel has a psychological heft tempered by the light touch and tight prose we expect from an expertly crafted story. As Waldman charts the course of Nate and Hannah’s tempestuous relationship from initial meeting to steady deterioration, Nate moves from beguilement to irritation to remorse.
Although pretty unlikable, Nate may be more than a little super-heroic in his ability to manipulate girls to get what he wants. But his combination of savoir-faire and brittleness transcends the tired trope of a man whose desire for professional success has come at a personal cost. Tunneling us deep into the heart of her hero’s hopes and heartaches, Waldman provides us with many amusing and astute observations, especially of the glamorous Brooklyn frat house set. Most hilarious is her portrayal of depressingly neurotic Hannah. From Nate’s point of view, we see Hannah internalizing her pain and sudden insecurities. She eventually turns to absolutes instead of solutions, as though she is trapped in the box of society’s expectations.
There are shades of Alan Bennett, that master of observation of English middle-class mediocrity, in some of Waldman’s vibrant descriptions of Nate’s parents and the pretty girls and careless guys who weave in and out of his life. Although there is not one redeeming or likeable character in the story, the author is particularly skilled at conveying, in clever turns of phrase, Brooklyn’s lively literary scene as Nate stumbles and clutches onto a firmer basis for hope and happiness than he started with.