Thursday, November 19, 2020

Book 260: Juliet, Naked


"Oh, it was a complicated business, loving art. It involved a lot more ill will than one might have suspected."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

The first time I heard a Ryan Adams song was my freshman year of college, when his "Wonderwall" cover was used on The O.C. I actually didn't like it, I tend to be hard to please on cover versions. But it got stuck in my head and I found myself listening to it again and again, which led me to the rest of his music, which was been a part of the soundtrack of my life for about 15 years. Ryan's music was been there for me through parties and fun and breakups and lazy days on the boat and college and law school and moves and everything else. I saw him live four times. I bought every album the day it came out. Which means that it really sucked when The New York Times reported that he'd been predatory towards women, and I decided that I didn't need his music to be a part of my world going forward (though I do still have a sentimental fondness for the songs that meant the most to me).

As someone who experienced my own minor obsession, I know what it's like to be devoted to a musician. But not the way Duncan is with Tucker Crowe in Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked. Tucker was a rocker whose breakup album Juliet was starting to make him famous when suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, he gives up his music career and vanishes. Duncan is so obsessed that he not only runs an online message board where he talks about Tucker's music with other devotees, he also drags his longtime, put-upon girlfriend Annie to America from the small seaside English town where they live to tour the sites most closely associated with Tucker's short career. And then one day, Duncan is sent the acoustic demo versions of the songs on Juliet, which the label intends to release as Juliet, Naked.

Since Duncan is the kind of boyfriend who expects his girlfriend to make sure the home runs without his input, Annie actually gets the new album first when checking the mail, and listens to it, preferring the finished versions. When Duncan puts up a glowing review on his website, she submits her own counterpoint...leading to an email from Tucker himself, the famous recluse agreeing that the original album is better. Tucker, it turns out, is not actually a recluse at all. He lives a normalish life in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife and their small son, the only one of his five children he's actually participated in raising. One thing leads to another, Duncan cheats on and is dumped by Annie, who continues her correspondence with Tucker, whose own relationship has deteriorated beyond repair, and then happens to find himself in England, and you can probably figure out where it goes from there.

I'll be honest: Nick Hornby is a comfort author for me, and I'm predisposed to enjoy his work and let him get away with things I'd be more critical of other authors for. He often uses elements in his work that can get a little same-y: obsessive people, adult man-children struggling towards emotional maturity, sometimes a heart-tugging actual child. But he has a way with characters and especially dialogue that gives his books a sparkle and charm that overpowers his tendencies to hit familiar emotional notes. It might not be clear from the way I wrote about the book, but it's Annie rather than Duncan who's really at the center of the narrative, and her voice as she examines how she got "stuck" with Duncan and how she feels about the time they spent together, is very identifiable. Who hasn't gotten out of a stagnant relationship and felt both the exhilaration of new possibilities and the fear that what you've left behind was as good as it was going to get?

Since I'm already being honest, I will say that this is one of Hornby's lesser efforts. There are a few too many plot points going on, meaning that some of them (Duncan's rebound relationship with the girl he cheated with, Annie's efforts to curate an exhibit for the small local museum, Tucker's other children) get the short shrift. And I think Hornby treats Tucker's poor efforts at fatherhood for all but his youngest child a little too flippantly. More genuine regret there might have given some nice weight to the narrative, and for a book that does deal with some heavy stuff, it could have used it. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable long as you don't think about it too much as you're reading. If you're looking to try out Hornby, I'd recommend About A Boy or High Fidelity first. If you already like Hornby, it likely won't wow you but it has its charms.

One year ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Two years ago, I was reading: Dark Places

Three years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Four years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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