Thursday, January 28, 2010

Juliet, Naked: Bad People, Good Music, So-So Read

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.


  1. Good review!
    Hardie --

  2. I like Nick Hornby, and I love novels about music. I'm so sorry to hear that this one fell flat. It's so sad when such great characters end up with an unfortunate plot.

  3. @brizmus - I was actually surprised when I checked Amazon after I wrote my review how good the other reviews were. So, if you're a Hornby fan, you may enjoy this one, too. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I am a big fan of Hornby's and am disappointed to hear you didn't like his latest - I haven't read it yet. I am glad you are going to check out some of his others and not writing him off.

  5. @Booksnyc - Thanks for the comment! As a Hornby fan, what would you recommend of his that you've really enjoyed? Yeah, I'd love to try something else by him!

  6. High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies, but surprisingly I've never read any of Hornby's books. I love anything related to music, including books. Looks like I'll pass on this one thoug. I will be curious to read some of his other stuff.

    Thanks for the bookstore suggestions. I have read about Open Books and The Book Cellar and have been meaning to check them out. I have been to Unabridged Books. I lived right down the street for 3 years.

  7. How to be Good is my top recommendation for Hornby. Let me know what you think when you read it!

  8. I, too, love the movie High Fidelity and have heard good things about Hornby's novels, but have not yet read any. It is a shame the plot falls flat in this one. Perhaps I will begin with a different one of his books. Thanks for the honest review.

  9. I totally get what you are saying about the inevitability! I hadn't really thought about that when I finished the book and was writing my review but you are SO right about that. Everything each character did seemed like the thing that was obvious. I thought the fact that he cheated on her was so predictable.

    I'm glad you brought this up because it definitely is something I didn't think about. I didn't so much mind the banal details because I felt like it really added to the whole idea of how trapped they were in their past. I liked seeing that side of Tucker because it was so vastly different from what Duncan and all his weirdo buddies made him out to be.

    Thanks for commenting on my review! I definitely enjoyed reading your review. Much more eloquent than mine! :P

    I'll have to let you know what I think of my next Hornby novel when I get to it!