With courage and determination and more than a little bit of moxie, Adelle Waldman set out to crack the code.
For her debut novel, a modern-day comedy of manners called "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P," the Baltimore-raised author decided to explore — and expose — the thinking of the kind of guy that she and her friends used to date.
Nate is a rising star on the New York literary scene, fueled by insecurity and arrogance. He's a serial dater who justifies dumping his girlfriend a few days after she'd had an abortion by reassuring himself "that he was not the kind of guy who disappeared after sleeping with a woman — and certainly not after the condom broke."
It's not that the Nates of the world are Waldman's problem any more. She's 36 years old now and happily married to writer Evan Hughes. But she wanted to figure out a few things on behalf of all the single women she knows still slugging it out in the trenches.
"There's this dynamic between Nate and Hannah in which a guy starts out being really interested in a woman but then loses interest," Waldman says.
"It might not be a universal pattern, but it's not uncommon. The woman is perplexed. She comes up with different ways to fix the relationship and it starts a downward spiral. I thought that trying to articulate that dynamic would be fun and disturbing."
So, Waldman drew on her years of reporting for newspapers in Connecticut and Ohio. She listened in on the conversations of the platonic male friends she's had since she graduated from college at Brown University and graduate school at Columbia University. And she benefited from decades of reading such astute chroniclers of human interactions as Jane Austen, George Eliot and Jonathan Franzen.
Now, she's ready to spill her guts — and in the city where she was raised. Waldman is coming to the Ivy Bookshop on Tuesday to read from her novel and answer questions.
Nate's your main character, but I wasn't always sure how much you like him.
I can be a know-it-all and I like to psychoanalyze people. But when I was writing the book, I tried really hard not to judge Nate. I thought that if I came up with some kind of psychological interpretation for his behavior, I would write a thinner narrative.
Ultimately, Nate was as hard to pinpoint as anyone we might date. He could be funny and kind and brilliant, and then in other moments hurtful and infuriating and hard to fathom.
I did feel affection for him. He had more confidence as a writer and intellectual swagger than I do, and that's something I admire. I don't think he has a complete incapacity to care, but he can be smug and unempathetic.
Nate narrates the entire novel. Was it difficult for you as a woman to find his voice?
I've read a lot of books by men that touch upon romantic relationships. A lot of books that I love and think are brilliantly written give their male characters a pass on their treatment of women.
After years of analyzing my own boyfriends and my own relationships, a light bulb went off in my head, and I realized that I had stored up a fair amount of insight into male behavior. I have two older brothers, and I also had several close guy friends since high school. Sometimes my friends would say something I would never come up with on my own about women's bodies or Internet porn. A few of those lines may have made it into my book.
Was being a female author ever an advantage?
Yes. There were certain thoughts that I can get away with expressing that a male novelist can't, unless the character saying these things is portrayed as a villain.
For instance, there's a tendency for men to see their intellectual peers as other men. They place women in a different and lesser category. Nate feels competitive toward male writers but charitable (and a little condescending) toward women writers.
Whereas as women, we think of both men and women as being our peers and rivals.
What kind of response are you getting from male readers?
I've been so touched. Not just younger men in their early 30s but also older men have vouched for the book's accuracy. They've written that they've cringed because they recognized a part of Nate in themselves. I thought that was just very generous and candid.
And not all men are like Nate. My two older brothers are the nicest people. They're not at all Nate-like.
Let's talk about the novel's ending. Nate has by this time been involved in a relationship that has lasted for over a year. What do you think changed about his situation? Has he grown up, or will this romance, too, run its course?
I wanted the ending to be a little dark. You'd expect that the person you'd be happiest with is the person who most closely matches your values, and Hannah is much closer to Nate's ideal in terms of her integrity and her character than is [the woman whom Nate ends up with.].
The reality is that the person in life that you're the happiest with isn't always the one whom you most respect. There are things about [Nate's new girlfriend] that he doesn't admire. But her drama allows him to shake off the shackles of his tactfulness and to say what he really thinks, so he doesn't end up seething silently with resentment.
Did you deliberately set out to write a contemporary Jane Austen-style story?
There are a lot of books that consciously channel Jane Austen, and they tend to be not very interesting. If I unconsciously tried to emulate anything, it was her wit, her morally aware tone, the pointing out of ways in which people's behavior falls short of the ideal. I adore those parts of her novels. It would be my dream to be more like Jane Austen.
Your book has been getting a lot of buzz — especially for a first-time novelist with no literary world connections. In the past week, there have been reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Washington Post.
It's been a little crazy lately. It used to be that the only email I would get would be from my husband asking what time we were having dinner. And now, I have a flurry of offers for Q&As and op-ed pieces on gender issues.
I'm behind on all my deadlines. But I can't put into words how gratifying it is.
If you go
Adelle Waldman will read from her new novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to http://www.theviybookshop.com.
About the book: "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P" was released July 16 by Henry Holt and Company. $25, 256 pages.