Read it and weep: To all the disappointing boys I’ve loved before

Hand reaching for a book
(Natalie Bauer • The Student Life)

I first encountered “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” by Adelle Waldman when talking to my cousin about a fascinating but disappointing man I had gone out with. He was a writer who shared my taste in literature but pulled back at the moment the relationship could have become serious.

“He’s a Nathaniel P.,” my cousin explained, as if that name should be a catch-all for a specific type of man one encounters while dating in their 20s. But once I did my research and devoured the novel in a matter of days, I came to see that she was right. 

I wish enough people would read this book that “Nathaniel P.” could become as integral to to dating vocabulary as softboi or “fan of Quentin Tarantino.” An incisive and darkly funny piece of literature, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” showcases the shallowness of a man whose entire persona suggests intellectual depth.

Nathaniel P. — or Nate — is a 30-something-year-old member of the New York literary elite awaiting the publication of his first novel. He “had not always been the kind of guy women call an asshole,” Waldman writes. Nate was too nerdy and not quite attractive enough to receive female attention, but after receiving a six-figure advance for his book, he became a desirable catch.

The story focuses on his relationship with Hannah, a freelance writer in the early stages of her career. The two meet at a dinner party thrown by Nate’s ex, and Nate is drawn to Hannah’s intelligence and sharp wit. They begin to date, but their relationship falls apart over time as Nate withdraws from the commitment; Hannah becomes progressively more frustrated with his coldness, in turn frustrating Nate who wishes she cared less about his behavior and their relationship. 

The unwinding of Hannah and Nate’s romance reveals a dark facet of contemporary heterosexual dating in which men possess an unwieldy and undesired power over women. There are certainly Nathaniel P.s in the queer dating world — some of whom I have unfortunately dated — but because they are beyond the scope of the book, I am narrowing my focus to heterosexual relationships.

As Sasha Weiss wrote for The New Yorker: “Men in New York — far outnumbered by women, and with time on their side — sometimes seem to hold all the cards.” It is significantly easier for Nate to leave Hannah and find another companion than the other way around. 

Yet Nate does not want Hannah to have to settle for him, as he reflects: “Why should he have had more power? … When he remembered that, he began to resent her …. For her willingness to be the victim.” 

Though his comments are a weak ploy for sympathy, they reflect a broader problem with the structure of dating: the pressure for women to ask for less in order to make themselves amenable to partners. Nate seems, at least in part, repelled by his own power over Hannah. Waldman illustrates a world in which men and women seem doomed to continue to rehash a script that works in no one’s favor.

And as we see this script play out once more, Nate’s allure gives way to an extreme emptiness. In one scene, Hannah mocks Nate for his “‘artfully crafted sentences,’ which … mimicked true feeling without knowing what it was.” Nate’s plethora of literary references and thesaurus-like descriptions lack true inspiration or meaning. On the surface, he checks all the boxes: He’s a successful writer who has read everything necessary to be part of the New York literary elite, yet he is still missing something profound. 

Waldman’s biting account of how Nate is terrible puts into language an experience that I have struggled to articulate: the surprising shallowness of men whose dedication to their passions would seem to require some level of depth. No one should want to become a Nathaniel P.

Near the end of their relationship, Hannah tells Nate, “I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, the most average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her … the affliction of shallow morons everywhere.” 

Though Nate’s personality hinges on his superiority to those around him, his relationship with Hannah reveals that his worst fear is true: He is not only a coward, he is unexceptional. While this book is sometimes painful to read, it also offers solace for those of us who wonder what we could have done differently to change the fate of a relationship. Micromanaging one’s behavior to perform for the world’s Nathaniel P.s is not only a losing game: He’s just not worth it.

Nina Potischman PO ’21.5 is one of TSL’s book columnists. She is an English major from Brooklyn, New York who likes to make art and eat bagels.

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