For a light, breezy book, Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby sure deals with some pretty heady questions: Can bad people create good art? (Sure!) If so, is that art lessened if it is disingenuously inspired? (Um, maybe?) And from the fan perspective, at what point does obsession so cannibalize appreciation, that the fan can no longer assess art objectively? (A good hint is the point you lose your 15-year relationship over your obsession...)
But as interesting as these questions are to think about, the plot that frames those questions in this novel sort of falls flat. The characters are real and fully developed (if not entirely likable) and the writing is excellent. So, what's the problem?
Let's look at the characters first: Tucker Crowe is a formerly famous American singer-songwriter who hasn't recorded since his masterpiece album Juliet more than 20 years ago. Now, as a 55-year-old do-nothing, he's slowly destroying his third marriage and beginning to regret the path his life has taken.
On the other side of the pond, in a small English seaside town, Annie and Duncan are immersed in a 15-year, childless, largely loveless relationship of convenience. Duncan loves Juliet, is obsessed with Tucker Crowe and spends all his free time moderating a Website dedicated to "Crowology." He's your typical Internet message board nerd — spending thousands of words discussing every word, phrase and note of Crowe's music, and spending hours speculating about where Crowe is now and whether he might make a comeback.
Annie also loves Juliet as a passionate, beautiful piece of music, but doesn't nearly share Duncan's obsession for the musician. She's also beginning to realize she may have wasted the last 15 years of her life with him. The spark for the novel is when a PR person sends Duncan a "new" Crowe record titled Juliet, Naked — a stripped down version of the classic Juliet. Duncan's and Annie's opinions vary widely on the new version, which creates more than a little strife in their already failing relationship. On the Website, Duncan posts a 3,000-word gush-fest while Annie posts a less-than-favorable review. Out of the blue, Tucker emails Annie to praise her for her honesty. This touches off a flirty and brutally honest e-mail conversation between the two, and lays the groundwork for the rest of the novel.
So, why doesn't the plotting succeed? Part of the reason is that the interesting meditations on music and regret are vastly overshadowed by the banal. The book spends entirely too much time following Tucker's day-to-day life as a stay-at-home dad and chronicling Annie's attempts to arrange a museum exhibit in her home town, among other things. These aside, there just seems to be a tinge of inevitability throughout the entire plot — like the characters were extensively developed, but then simply dropped into a pre-built plot structure so rigid there's no chance for the unexpected. It seems all the choices Hornby makes regarding the plot are the too-safe ones — that is until the ending, in which one character finally does something so OUT of character, it's laughable and totally silly. But, perhaps I've said too much...
This was my first foray into Hornby's work. I absolutely love the movie High Fidelity, based on a Hornby novel, and I love novels about music, so I had really high hopes for Juliet, Naked. But while I wasn't a fan of this one, I will say that Hornby's writing and characterization was definitely intriguing enough that I'll try one of his other, hopefully better-plotted, books.