Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Brownstone Bildingsroman

It's generally accepted to the point of cliché that certain worlds are overrepresented in contemporary literature: New York (esp. certain parts of Brooklyn), fancy colleges (esp. Harvard), literary circles, white people (esp. straight Jewish men - Jewish because Roth). The poignant suffering of the upper-middle-class youth when first confronted with the real rich people - say, at Harvard.

Adelle (not to be confused with Ayelet) Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is pretty unapologetically all of this, the twist being a female author with a (convincing, at least to this female reader) male protagonist. Or, that - as I vaguely remember seeing in a review a while ago - it's actually a parody of that genre. It is, in that "Girls"-ish way, familiar. Sometimes I thought I'd mistakenly picked up Ross Douthat's Privilege, so familiar was the protagonist's sense of outsiderness upon meeting the country's upper-upper-crust in euphemistic Boston. And the overly-cerebral young Jewish man's first real relationship, with a no-nonsense wholesome blonde... it's just that a lot needs to be done to make a story told so many times worth, in effect, repeating.

But it's a very good book, regardless, and one whose plot I'm going to not spoil. There are amazing sentences, the sort that really precisely convey a universal human experience. One that comes to mind is about particularities of beautiful young women in conversation, the other about how families define themselves with respect to the outside world, but not spoiling means not quoting directly. There are also some very spot-on observations of dating dynamics - the way people who see themselves as such individuals fall into the respective gender roles the other sets out for them.

It must have been a good read, as I read nearly all of it today and barely put it down. And from a literary perspective, it's plenty interesting - we get the protagonist's views on women, and on women's writing, and have to periodically stop and ask whether the book itself supports or contradicts his hypothesis. That the answer may well be "supports" is what makes it intriguing.


Miss Self-Important said...

I don't think quoting a particularly well-turned sentence is spoiling so much as teasing. Don't leave us in the lurch here! (Not that I am likely to read this book in the next decade, but I want to know the good sentences!)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I suppose you're right. Although I think, looking at them again, that both of these sentences benefit from the context:

"Only an attractive young woman would take for granted a stranger's interest in the minutiae of her life." (p. 92)

"He had wondered if everybody took the quality they had and treated it as the most important thing -- used it as a basis for feeling superior to others." (p. 104)

The second of these is about how families define themselves - otherwise it's less interesting.