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Modern mating rituals in new Waldman, Roth fiction

"The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.," by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt, July 2013) Photo Credit: Handout

Like a contemporary Jane Austen, Adelle Waldman unpacks every nuance of modern mating mores in her debut novel, "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." (Henry Holt, $25). The setting is literary Brooklyn, and her protagonist is Nate Piven, whose think-pieces for highbrow magazines and six-figure book contract make him a fellow to watch on the scene. These credentials, along with the crimson T-shirt peeking out of his unbuttoned Oxford to reveal the A-R-V of Harvard, are finally getting him some chicks.

Each girl Nate encounters is evaluated in terms of literary accomplishments and hotness, the latter being far more important. Greer, for example, has a forthcoming book that is "partly a memoir about my teenage misadventures but also sort of an art book with photos and drawings and song lyrics." Fortunately, her breasts are "his favorite size, just big enough to fill a wineglass ." Hannah, on the other hand, is a "thin, pert-breasted writer" who makes smart conversation. But Nate's friend Jason would certainly rate her no higher than a 7.

Nate has come to understand that no matter how career-oriented the women around him once were, in their 30s they care about little but relationships. Their idea of heaven is fooling around in the kitchen with a loving boyfriend "while the two of them chop vegetables and sip wine and listen to NPR." Unfortunately, Nate's dream dinner would consist of "a Celeste Pizza for One and a copy of Lermontov's 'A Hero of Our Time.'" But if he wants to keep getting girls, he's going to have to keep that misogyny and reclusiveness under control -- will he be able to make the wretched compromise?

Bravo to Adelle Waldman for getting inside the psyche of Homo erectus literaticus, and for not making it as easy as it should be to hate him. "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." is good, evil fun.


Gabriel Roth's debut, "The Unknowns" (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, $25) introduces to us another thoroughly modern male seeker of love, subtype Homo erectus nerdicus. Supergeek Eric Mueller has been a socially awkward loser with women all his life, never more so than at the moment in high school when his research notes tracking the behavior of the girls in his class fell into the hands of -- oy vey -- the girls in his class. "Here we go," one Michelle Kessel read aloud, having located the entry on herself. "Likes to be in charge. Doesn't laugh much. Lots of makeup. Popular. User."

These days, however, Eric is a Silicon Valley millionaire whose algorithm for predicting consumer behavior has dramatically improved his social status. "People say It's all about self-confidence, but they don't say why, and for a long time I rejected this truism," he reflects. Now, he gets it. "The answer is that sexual selection is distorted by information asymmetry. The first time she sees you, she doesn't know if you're a potent, generous alpha male or a guy who spends all day getting into edit wars on Wikipedia. But you know, and the self-valuation you display is her best clue." With his self-valuation at an all-time high, he can shoot for women like Maya, a journalist whose loveliness is in the 98th percentile.

He assiduously applies scientific methods to his wooing of Maya, and at first things go so swimmingly that he has to take a bathroom break to pause in amazement: "How did I learn to do this, and will I be able to sustain it when I get back to the table? At any moment the waiter will bring my plate of medium-rare steak strips with onions and potatoes. This infusion of protein and salt is exactly what my body wants; how thoughtful, how prescient of my past self to arrange it!"

However, neither his past self nor his present one can do a thing about the leftfield plot twist that's next on the menu. As in the days of his notebook, Eric can't stop collecting data about Maya until she reveals a history of sexual abuse by her father. Though he doesn't know much about the recovered memory debate, he can't live with the possibility that her story is false, and goes behind her back to investigate. From there, the book wraps up rather quickly and somewhat less satisfyingly than it seemed to promise at first.

I wanted better for Eric.

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