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Juliet, Naked


Juliet, Naked

Rhapsodizing about the Shins’ song, “New Slang,” Natalie Portman begs Zach Braff in the movie Garden State, “You gotta listen to it. It’ll change your life.” Portman’s character would feel perfectly at home in Nick Hornby’s sixth novel, a fetching story about the power of music, the folly of celebrity fandom, and the perils of celebrity itself. Hornby offers up an appealing set of “Hornbyesque” characters, as frustrating as they are likable in their struggles to navigate the shoals of ordinary life.

There was a time when a novel that brought together two people living in a dreary English seaside town and a mostly forgotten American rock star would have been too farfetched to pull off. Enter the Internet, and Duncan Thomson, obsessed fan of Tucker Crowe, a singer/songwriter in the mold of Dylan, Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, whose career ended mysteriously when he stepped out of the bathroom of a tiny Minneapolis club in 1986. Duncan, a college teacher in Gooleness (its name devastatingly conveys the town’s desperate ordinariness), runs a website devoted to dissecting Crowe’s work with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. As the novel opens, Duncan and his girlfriend, Annie Platt, are in the midst of a three-week odyssey across the United States dedicated to visiting the iconic sites in Crowe’s life and career.

If Duncan had devoted as much effort to his 15-year relationship with Annie as he has to obsessing over Crowe’s oeuvre, her attention might not be so concentrated on the swift passage of time and the rapidly fading chance she’ll bear a child as she reaches her 40th birthday. “What hadn’t she done because she’d spent too much time with a boring, faithless nerd,” Annie muses, “apart from living the kind of life she’d wanted when she was twenty-five?” Annie is the curator of the Gooleness Seaside Museum, charged with mounting an exhibit to commemorate the highlights of the summer of 1964, when a new band --- the Rolling Stones --- performed in the town and a shark washed up on the beach. Her therapist (she’s his only patient) wants to date her, and a “northern soul” dancer from a neighboring town begs her to sleep with him. One of Hornby's signal achievements in the novel lies in making her mingled frustration and anger palpable.

Annie and Duncan’s static existence is disturbed when Duncan receives a CD containing acoustic versions of the 10 songs on Crowe’s “legendary" breakup album, Juliet. Dubbed Juliet, Naked, the disc quickly wins Duncan’s ecstatic praise, but Annie’s decision to post her challenge to her companion’s adoring review serves as a tacit declaration of independence that brings their foundering relationship to an end in a breakup scene that is laced with brittle humor and pathos: “They made it hard for you to jump off bridges, or to smoke, to own a gun, to become a gynecologist. So how come they let you walk out on a stable, functioning relationship?”

Annie’s boldness attracts the attention of an unlikely email correspondent --- Tucker Crowe --- who shares her own dim view of the work and, like her, is burdened by the need to reclaim a huge swath of lost time. After his disappearance from the music scene for 22 years, he has succeeded only at squandering the talent he briefly displayed and at inflicting misery on those who find themselves in his orbit. “So stopping had been a very smart career move --- provided, that is, you ignored the lack of a career that was the inevitable consequence.” Father to five children with four mothers, he lives in a small town in central Pennsylvania with his six-year-old son, Jackson, and his most recent wife, who is about to divorce him. When his pregnant daughter in London loses her baby, Tucker and Jackson head for England and what will turn out to be his rendezvous with Annie. What he doesn’t expect, in the process, is a health scare and a reunion with (most of) his widely-scattered exes and their offspring. And soon, Annie and Tucker are circling each other warily, heading toward a resolution that is satisfying in its unpredictability.

No popular novelist working today is as generous to his creations as Nick Hornby, and it’s that talent that makes it easy to see ourselves in the wistful, quietly desperate lives of these characters. Almost without effort, Annie helps the men in her life --- celebrity (however minor) and devoted fan --- experience something that looks suspiciously like growth. And in accomplishing that, she finds herself changed in unexpected ways. “For the best part of forty years she had genuinely believed that not doing things would somehow prevent regret, when, of course, the exact opposite was true. Her youth was over, but there might be some life left in life yet.” There’s ample life in this charming novel, an openhearted, witty take on how starting in the middle can feel like a new beginning.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on January 22, 2011

Juliet, Naked
by Nick Hornby

  • Publication Date: September 7, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 1594484775
  • ISBN-13: 9781594484773