Fair warning: if you look up Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked on Google Images, be prepared to find way more than you were looking for. But despite what Google might push on you, the nakedness here is innocent: it refers to the emotionally raw and unfinished nature of Tucker Crowe’s new release.
Tucker Crowe is a past-prime recluse rock star. In the 20 years since the release of his seminal album Juliet, Crowe has led a hermit life, making progressively bigger mistakes until he decides to settle and become a good husband to Cat, his fourth wife, and a good father to Jackson, his fifth child. Jackson, six years old, is one of the best characters in the story, with wisdom well beyond his age and a paranoia about death equalled by few. Duncan is a huge fan of Tucker Crowe—a Crowologist. One of those fans who spends his free time discussing 20-year-old music in an internet forum, as if the reason for Tucker’s sudden abandon of the music scene held a greater truth.
Annie is Duncan’s not-really-wife. She puts up with his Crowe obsession, but it’s taxing on their relationship. But she’s not as clueless about Tucker’s music as Duncan seems to think. When Juliet, Naked comes in the mail direct from the record company, she listens to it without telling Duncan. Juliet, Naked is essentially the demo version of Juliet, raw and unfinished, and Annie doesn’t think it’s as good as the official, finished album. Duncan, despite being furious over Annie’s breach of protocol—and even more at her dislike of the album—writes a raving review on the forum before any of the other Crowologists get a chance to listen.
Here’s where the plot starts to get interesting. Annie decides to post a review of her own to the forum, and she receives an email response from Tucker. From Tucker Crowe the hermit! At first she’s incredulous, but slowly an email relationship begins to develop, with plenty of teenage fawning on both sides.
When Duncan cheats on Annie with a new coworker and Cat divorces Tucker, the two find solace in their emails, and eventually they decide to meet. Now this is where the story takes off, with an awkward Crowe family reunion in a hospital in London and an even more awkward encounter between Duncan and Tucker. But I’ll leave it at that so I don’t ruin the best bits.
My first experience of Nick Hornby’s writing was Long Way Down, an absolutely hilarious novel about four people who meet at the top of a building, all planning to jump, and end up convincing each other not to. Juliet, Naked isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as Long Way Down, but it’s more touching, and equally good. There’s plenty of humour, but it’s more human. Long Way Down is a tragicomedy of extremes—depression and hilarity—while Juliet, Naked is one that makes good use of the gooey stuff in between.
Caveat. Remember the cringe-worthy epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Of course you do. We all wish it didn’t happen. The epilogue to Juliet, Naked had a similar effect. It kind of made the book bleh, in those four pages, by telling us more than we needed to know about how the story unfolds. In Deathly Hallows it was all too wishy-washy, too much everything-turned-out-well-in-the-end; in Juliet, Naked it was an unwanted confirmation that sorting out Tucker’s problems made his music crappy. Which is kind of funny, I guess, but I would have preferred the “ignorance is bliss” approach.