Nick Hornby is one of the most reliable contemporary authors I know. I’ve read almost all of his fiction and have found them to be good, solid, easy reads that are often surprisingly insightful. Many of my favorite authors help me understand other people and other places, but Hornby often helps me understand myself. That was certainly the case with Juliet, Naked.
As the novel begins, it seems to be a sort of examination of what it is to be a fan, particularly a music fan. Duncan is a fan, but not just an ordinary fan. His obsession is the obscure 1980s singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, and he’s one of the leaders of an online community of “Crowologists” who spend their time analyzing the minutiae of Crowe’s work, looking for clues to what might have led to him suddenly retire in the middle of a tour nearly 20 years ago, and speculating about where he might be now. Annie, Duncan’s girlfriend of 15 years, is a more typical fan. She likes Crowe’s music, but she doesn’t take her appreciation to the same level as Duncan.
Duncan and Annie’s divergent views of Crowe’s work come into sharp contrast when Duncan receives a CD of a new Crowe release, Juliet, Naked, the acoustic demos for Juliet, Crowe’s best and final album. Their disagreement about the merit of the music and whose view has more validity draws out other disagreements that have lurked beneath the surface of their relationship for years. And when Annie receives a surprise e-mail from the subject of their disputes, things get complicated. Eventually, both Annie and Duncan start to question, in their own particular ways, whether they are better off together or apart.
One of the best things about Hornby is that he takes his characters’ sometimes quirky passions and lifestyles seriously. Although Duncan is sometimes treated as comic relief, the comedy comes mostly from his inability to cope with ordinary life and relationships, not from a sense that Duncan is foolish for caring about something “trivial.” I’ve seen Hornby’s characterizations described as compassionate, and you can definitely see that in his characterizations of both Duncan and Tucker. Both men are failures by typical definitions of the world, but Hornby finds something to value in each of them.
Annie, on the other hand, is really the heart of the book. She’s far more self-aware than Duncan, and sometimes her self-analysis is hilariously familiar. The crisis over Juliet, Naked forces her to take an even more serious look at how she got to where she is and whether it’s where she really wants to be. These are the questions all three main characters end up asking in one way or another. The great thing is that there are no obvious answers for Hornby’s characters, just as there are not in life. It’s a testimony to Hornby’s skill that I wasn’t sure what I wanted the characters to decide, and I’m still not sure I’m happy with how it ended. I love that sort of ambiguity. It’s messy, like life.
This was my first time listening to a Hornby novel on audio, and as I suspected, his style works well in this format, and the audio production is quite good. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different character, so three different readers—Bill Irwin, Ben Miles, Jennifer Wiltsie—perform the book. The book is written in third person, so it would have been fine to stick with a single narrator, but I can see why the producers chose this route. It gives each character more of an equal and distinct voice, even if Annie’s narrative remains the emotional core. There were a few grating moments toward the end, most involving accent changes and renderings of a child’s voice, but the performances are generally enjoyable.
Overall, this is another success for Nick Hornby, and if you haven’t tried Hornby, it would be a perfectly good place to start.