The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
I’m sure you’ve noticed: hipsters are ubiquitous.
I live in a true hipster haven. A short walk from our house, we have the doughnut (not donut, obviously) hipsters right next door to the craft-beer hipsters. Hipsters are everywhere. And they come in every variety imaginable.
My all-time personal favorite kind of hipster is the ice-cream hipster. For me, ice cream is the perfect food. I could (and often do) eat it every single day. But my love of ice cream pales in comparison to the passion exhibited by the ice-cream hipster my husband and I encountered at Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon.
Salt & Straw is a hipster establishment of the highest order. Here’s how they describe themselves on their website:
We’re Salt & Straw, Portland’s farm-to-cone ice cream shop. Our ice cream is handmade in small-batches using only all-natural dairy with the best local, sustainable and organic ingredients Oregon has to offer, as well as imported flavors from small, handpicked farms and producers around the world. We start with fresh, local, all-natural cream from family owned farms in the Willamette Valley. Our ice cream is made with 17% butterfat, very little air in the churn process, and a low sweetness level…so the flavors can really shine through!
I mean, come on. It’s like an ironic, made-up advertisement for a hipster ice-cream shop. It’s almost too good to be believed. But that’s the thing about hipsters; they’re so over-the-top about something it comes off as satirical.
When my husband and I visited Salt & Straw the first time, we were overwhelmed by the delicious offerings (written, predictably, by hand on a chalkboard framed with reclaimed wood). But we needn’t have fretted, because we had an ice-cream hipster (appropriately hipster-garbed in a vest, newsboy cap, wire-rimmed glasses, and handlebar mustache) to take us on a “flavor journey” (the ice-cream hipster’s words, not mine).
He started us off simply, by having us compare the flavor profiles of Double Fold Singing Dog Vanilla and Arbequina Olive Oil. He told us to roll the ice creams on our tongues and to appreciate the different tastes and textures created by the oil fat versus the butterfat. We moved on from there to fruit: Honey Balsamic Strawberry with Cracked Black Pepper, noting the hints of sweet, spice, and acid. Finally, we finished with some bold flavors: Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbon and Coffee with Cocoa Nibs. While we tasted each ice cream, our ice-cream hipster explained its fat content, the origins of the choice ingredients, and the reasons behind the flavor combinations. It was far more serious than most wine tastings I’ve experienced.
At the end of our flavor journey he asked if there were any other ice creams we might like to try. When I asked if I could have a taste of the Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache, he asked if my husband would like to taste it, too.
“No, thanks. I’ll just have a little bit of hers,” Bryan replied.
“I have to strongly recommend against that,” the ice-cream hipster said gravely, frowning and wrinkling his brow. “You see, I’m going to create the perfect taste for her. It will have all of the flavor components, and she should eat it all in one bite. It can’t be shared. “ He smiled. “But I’m happy to make you your own taste.”
He was dead serious. It was, far and away, the best hipster comment I’ve ever heard.
I sound like I’m poking fun (and I am, a little bit). But, I have to tell you, that was the most delicious effing ice cream I’ve ever tasted. And it was the very best ice-cream shop experience I’ve ever had. And, when you think about it, that makes sense.
Which brings me (finally) to the book review. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is not about Portland ice-cream hipsters. It’s about a different brand of hipster: Brooklyn literary hipsters.
Lit hipsters are just like ice-cream hipsters. Only, instead of delicious ice cream, they’re really into books.
How can you tell the difference between a lit hipster and someone who just likes to read? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a little list of things lit hipsters do:
- They hang out in hipster bars that are masquerading as dives but are trendily decorated with tables “topped with old-fashioned desk lamps.”
- They frequent each other’s book readings and go to dinner parties rife with authors, publishers, reviewers, and journalists. And when they’re together, they make jokes about and analogies to Middlemarch and The Scarlet Letter (“So in giving Nate a hard time, what you’re really doing is embodying a repressive social order? [. . .] You’re like the guy who sewed the A onto Hester Prynne’s dress?”)
- They judge people by their bookshelves (“He noticed the stack of books on Hannah’s bedside table. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, A Sentimental Education, The Kreutzer Sonata. Was he imagining it, or was there a theme? Books about lovelorn women, men whose feelings were shorter-lived. Maybe he was being paranoid. Maybe his girlfriend just had impressive taste in literature.”).
- They’re attracted to women in oversized glasses who read Svevo and Bernhard on the subway.
- They quote Wordsworth poems to themselves (“The city doth now, like a garment, wear / the beauty of the morning, silent, bare . . . He vowed to pay attention to the sunrise more often, when he hadn’t been up all night.”)
In The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. author Adelle Waldman takes you into the world of the Brooklyn literary hipster. And she nails it (I have a feeling this may be a takes-one-to-know-one situation).
Nathaniel Piven (Nate) is the protagonist, “a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience.” He’s Harvard educated, just got a six-figure book deal, and is all of the self-s: self-indulgent, self-righteous, a little self-conscious. Sometimes he makes you laugh, sometimes you just want to punch him in the face.
The book is mostly about Nate’s relationship with Hannah. Hannah is also a writer. She’s smart, acerbic, attractive, and personable. She plays nicely with his friends. She’s well read. She just gets it.
But their relationship is not all peaches and cream. Why? Well, as 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. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.
And Hannah may be onto something. Nate’s youngish. He’s just starting to feel accomplished. He’s getting attention from women who wouldn’t have given him a second glance back when he was a proofreader. He doesn’t like talking about his feelings. He thinks talking about relationships is petty and gossipy. And, sometimes, he’d just prefer to be “hunching over his kitchen table with a Celeste Pizza for One and a copy of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.”
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a look at relationships generally (why we like who we like, why we sometimes end up with people who aren’t the best match for us, how early excitement can turn quickly into boring routine, how things that aren’t all that annoying annoy us, how our friends’ opinions matter, how when you stop trying it all falls apart) through the lens of Nate’s relationships specifically.
Rating: 4/5 📚
The book is an anthropological look at the literary hipster. At times, I felt like it bordered on satire . . . but then I remembered my ice-cream hipster, and I realized that hipsters actually are this ridiculous.
Yes, the hipsters are annoying. And, yes, they can be unlikeable. But Waldman has made them human. And that’s no small feat.
So, O.K., you get it. This is a book about hipsters. But let me be clear: it’s a good book about hipsters.
Who should read it: my brother, John (i.e., people who love, love, looooooove hipsters); my brother-in-law, Sweater (i.e., people who have a keen fascination with and appreciation for hipsters); all the fine people at Salt & Straw or Ale Yeah! or Revolution Doughnuts (i.e., all brands of hipster).