November 04, 2009

BOOKS: Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby (2009)

In the mid-80s, Tucker Crowe was a moderately succesful singer-songwriter, compared to folks like Springsteen, Dylan, and Cohen. But he hasn't been heard from since his 1986 masterpiece, Juliet. These days, there's a lively Internet community devoted to sharing every tiny rumor about where Crowe might be living, and offering up minutely detailed analysis of his every lyric.

One of those self-styled "Crowologists" is Duncan, who lives in a dull little village on the English coast; he is giddy with excitement at the release of Juliet, Naked, a collection of acoustic demo recordings of the Juliet songs. Duncan's long-time girlfriend, Annie,doesn't understand the fuss; to her, the Naked recordings are unpolished versions of the much better songs from the original Juliet.

Annie surprises herself by posting her own thoughts on Naked at Duncan's website; Duncan's reaction is somewhere between amusement -- "oh, Annie has an opinion; isn't that cute?" -- and horror -- "...and it's not the same as my clearly better-informed opinion?!?" The stress turns out to be the final blow to their relationship, which has been slowly dying for some time. But there are some enthusiastic responses to Annie's comments, most surprisingly an e-mail message from someone claiming to be Tucker Crowe himself.

Annie is, I think, the most convincing female character Hornby's ever written; his focus has been mostly on men before now. (There were significant female characters in A Long Way Down, but the less said about that mess of a book, the better.) And the relationship that develops between Annie and Tucker (because, yes, it really is Tucker sending that e-mail) is entirely believable; it's a lovely portrait of two lonely people, each one completely aware that they may be investing far too much emotional energy in what is, after all, simply a long-distance e-mail relationship.

Annie and Tucker are both coming to grips with the idea that they may have wasted much of their lives -- Tucker as a reclusive non-musician who's done nothing for 20 years but accumulate ex-wives and children he rarely sees, and Annie in a long-term relationship that's never been terribly fulfilling, but seemed like the best she was likely to find in her small town. Is it too late for either of them to live up to the potential lives they once thought were possible?

Juliet, Naked is a graceful and charming novel (though I really do dislike the title) filled with Hornby's usual mix of understated humor and broad punchlines. The characters are well-rounded, and there are marvelous comic set pieces (I loved the first meeting between Tucker and Duncan, for instance). It feels to me like Hornby's first novel about grownups, as opposed to young men who can't or won't take the final steps into adulthood. I liked it a lot.

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