Sometimes you need to drop the intensity. I had been reading a lot of pretty full-on novels about migration and identity. A lot of them were quite violent, either physically or psychologically. I was trying really hard to read new stories, new voices, different authors. But I needed a break. So I picked up The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. after seeing it recommended by Lena Dunham in her interview with Judy Blume (read my post about that here). Because what I needed was the literary equivalent of an episode of Girls, or Mad Men, or Orange Is The New Black. Something that was smart but digestible. This was a great choice.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is about a writer on the rise: Nate Piven is about to have his debut novel published after working on his craft for some long and lean years. Armed with an advance and an acknowledgement of his work, it would be easy for Adelle Waldman to have written Nate as the hero or the fool - either revelling in success and winning the girl of his dreams, or throwing it all away and ending up lost and lonely. These are the two easy romantic comedy conventions (though maybe lost and lonely is not the kind of role the Hollywood rom-com stars would take on too quickly). But what Waldman has done is much more interesting: carved a path somewhere in between the two.
In The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Waldman does two things you’re not meant to do – write from the man’s perspective as a woman, and criticise Brooklyn. There’s a great passage where Nate is heading to Prospect Park on a sunny July afternoon and describes the scene, one eerily reminiscent of Dolores Park in San Fransisco’s Mission District, or Edinburgh Gardens in Melbourne’s Fitzroy:
“Prospect Park teemed with cheerful people doing cheerful things: walking, running, biking, playing Little League, watching Little League, eating drippy ice cream cones while watching Little League. Groups of young professionals toting canvas bags from local bookstores staked out places on the grass next to Caribbean families with plastic coolers full of elaborate foods that somehow smelled of plantains. The park was a liberal integrationist’s wet dream: multiracial, multiethnic, multiclass.”
There are a lot of similarities to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but updated twenty years later. The struggling record store owner is replaced with the emerging writer, London is replaced with New York and the romantic anti-hero is just as frustratingly recognisable. In fact as I finished this book I was sitting in the diner style cafe by my house and Smog’s Cold Blooded Old Times came on the stereo, a song I was introduced to by the film soundtrack to High Fidelity, whilst thinking of the similarities between Nate and Rob in passages such as this:
“They [women] simply swoon at images of cooking dinner together, of some loving boyfriend playfully swatting their ass with a dishtowel while the two of them chop vegetables and sip wine and listen to NPR (preferably in a jointly owned prewar apartment with an updated kitchen). And that’s their prerogative. But what right do they have to demonise a counterpreference? If Nate’s idea of a nice dinner involved hunching over his kitchen table with a Celeste Pizza for One and a copy of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, who is to say that his ideal is worse?”
I was grateful for an intelligent romantic novel, smart enough to make fun of its genre and its roots, but not too biting as to be cynical and overwrought. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. will not stay with me for years, it didn’t keep me up at night or question my beliefs. But it was entertaining, comforting and easy. Exactly what I needed.
Just as I was in need of a comforting read, I was in need of comfort food. My friend Jess’ Dad found himself with a bumper crop of beautiful big blue-tinted pumpkins and was busy palming them off to anyone who even feigned interest. And what says comfort more than double carbohydrates? Once I had finally cut the pumpkin down into a workable size, I went about roasting trays of chunky pieces. Dressed with olive oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper, its great at room temperature in work lunches, but the crispy corners also bring a depth of flavour to this risotto that my friend Laura first cooked for me years ago, that I’ve been turning to ever since. Onion or leek is sweated down before adding the risotto rice to get coated before slowly adding vegetable or chicken stock while the pumpkin roasts away. Then, just as the rice is almost ready, stir in chopped fresh rosemary for warm spice, the roasted pumpkin, and a handful or two of toasted walnuts. Top the hearty bowls with crumbled goats cheese or feta for a sharp contrast and creamy finish. A perfect meal for crisp late autumn nights with a glass of wine while watching HBO or listening to NPR, living the inner city dream that Waldman cheekily makes fun of but that we all secretly adore.
I loved this recent article in The Atlantic about a study out to prove that growing rice makes you as a farmer, as well as your community, less individualistic than those who grow wheat. The theory is that the irrigation required to grow rice demands social coordination: it directly relies on you working with your neighbours, whereas wheat relies on rainfall, whether you’re friendly with your neighbours or not.