Skip to main content

Juliet, Naked

Review

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 (mwn52@aol.com) 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