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October 15, 2009

Review - "Juliet, Naked" by Nick Hornby

In this series at Largehearted Boy, guest contributors review music books.

Josh Christie shares two of my greatest passions, beer and literature, on his blog Brews and Books.

Josh Christie of Brews and Books reviews Nick Hornby's latest novel, Juliet, Naked:

Considering how much Nick Hornby writes about music, it feels appropriate to compare his newest book, Juliet Naked, to a greatest hits album. After all, all of his favorite topics are there. If you take the obsessive fandom of Fever Pitch, How to Be Good's exploration of relationships, the power of music examined in High Fidelity and themes about parenthood from About a Boy and toss them all in a British blender, a book like Juliet Naked is likely to spill out. The final product is quintessential Hornby, and his best novel since 1992's High Fidelity.

The story of Juliet Naked revolves around three main characters – Annie, Duncan and Tucker. Annie and Duncan are an English couple living in a small seaside town, quickly hurtling towards middle age in a relationship that isn't keeping either particularly happy. While Annie is certainly invested in her relationship with Duncan, he puts much more attention into his obsession with Tucker Crowe, a reclusive musician who dropped off the pop culture radar a couple decades earlier.

When an acoustic version of Tucker's seminal album Juliet (called, wait for it, Juliet Naked) makes it's way into Duncan's inbox, the obsessive and internet-literate fan posts a glowing review of the album on a Tucker Crowe fan site. Annie decides to stretch her creative muscles and write a review of her own, channeling years of frustration with her relationship and Duncan's Crowe obsession into a negative review of the acoustic work. Tucker stumbles upon the review and strikes up an flirtatious e-mail correspondence with Annie, and the novel takes off from there. As you would expect, circumstances end up putting Tucker straight on a path into Duncan and Annie's lives.

Complicated and somewhat melancholy relationships take center stage in most of Hornby's novels, and Juliet Naked is no exception. Annie and Duncan are a classic example of a couple that seems to be together because of convenience rather than genuine affection. Both live in the unsophisticated town of Goolness, and eventually drinks together turned into dates and turned into “something indistinguishable from cohabitation.” Annie desperately wants a child, something to offer her the unconditional love she lacks from Duncan. Duncan, meanwhile, puts all his emotional energy into his love of Tucker and his music, and drifts aimlessly away from the girlfriend who doesn't share his obsession. Tucker brings a child of his own into the equation, and aches for a relationship with someone that isn't conditional on his one-time fame. Hornby masterfully navigates this complicated love triangle, and creates rich and believable characters in Annie and Tucker. Duncan gets a bit less development and comes off as more one-dimensional – but as the second and third acts focus more on Annie and Tucker, the lack of attention is forgivable.

What Hornby really nails in Juliet Naked is obsessive music fandom. Tucker Crowe feels like a real musician in the vein of Dylan or Cohen, and fake Wikipedia entries about his albums and career between the chapters create an artist with decades of believable fake history. One of the funniest parts of the book is a internet community that has sprung up devoted to the reclusive artist, endlessly analyzing Crowe's albums and speculating about his retreat from the limelight. There are even breathless accounts of Tucker sightings from the “Croweologists” - sightings that turn out to be a friend of Crowe's called “Fake Tucker” - or “F*cker.” Through the characters of Annie and Duncan we see the two sides of the coin of fans' obsession, with the richness of experience Duncan feels listening to music, and Annie's frustration with the man's obsession with someone else's work.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book brings with it a bit of disappointment. The first act wonderfully introduces and develops all the characters, and the second finds Annie and Tucker examining their failed or failing relationships. You would think that a novel with a love triangle like this would be building to a final moment – either heartbreaking or hilarious – where the three love interests meet and everything builds to a crescendo. But the events bringing the three together are a bit too slapped together, and what should be a climactic moment is brief and doesn't carry the weight it should. Once this penultimate moment passes, Hornby does right the ship and push everyone towards a sensible conclusion. A great touch is the hopeful but not entirely happy (and completely ambiguous) conclusion, a scene I suspect many will hate but I absolutely loved.

If you're a fan of music – obsessive or otherwise – this novel delivers on the reputation for writing about the subject that Hornby built with Songbook and High Fidelity. If you're not a music fan, the few storytelling problems may weigh on you a bit more, but there's more than enough good to carry any reader through Juliet Naked. Rather than a retread of his other books, Hornby managed to get to the core of each of his older works and pour the best bits of them into his newest.

also at Largehearted Boy:

other guest book reviews at Largehearted Boy
Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Soundtracked (directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks)
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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