Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
My Rating: ★★★★ (3.5/5 stars)
Musical fandom is no strange land to many of us. No matter what genre we strike a chord with, we are meshed together by the fact that we take a string of linked notes as some form of medicine for the soul, taken through the ears and channeled straight to our very cores. No matter how occupied our hearts seem to be, there’s always a slice that we save for music. It’s just sometimes, some people’s slices are far bigger than the others’… so much bigger to a point that the chunks reserved for something else were devoured by this slice, too.
Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked touches on this subject. It starts in an old toilet, which happens to be an important stop in a fan’s pilgrimage in honor of the purportedly legendary American musician Tucker Crowe. The said fan is the self-proclaimed “Crowologist” Duncan, and he has dragged his partner Annie to the trip. The old toilet is said to have been the last place Crowe went to before he left the music industry and disappeared into god knows where for more than two decades. For diehards like Duncan, the toilet has some kind of historic importance and a mystery waiting to be unveiled.
While Annie likes Juliet—Tucker Crowe’s last album before the commencement of his era of ‘reclusion’— she doesn’t share the same fanaticism Duncan has for the musician. In their 15 years of being tied down by a marriage of convenience, Annie has long accepted this quirk in Duncan’s personality. They’re living in some sort of bleak peace in some sort of bleak town called Gooleness, until this little bubble of strange serenity was burst by a break in Crowe’s 20 years of silence. An acoustic, barebones compilation of the songs in Juliet is released as a record called Juliet, Naked. Needless to say, it causes a fan racket in the Crowe community. What Annie and Duncan didn’t see coming is the stir it will also cause in their relationship. Duncan pens a rather hyperbolic appraisal for the release; Annie then offers the Info Superhighway her honestly lukewarm review, which in turn catches the attention of Tucker Crowe himself.
Paths begin to converge, diverge, and crisscross messily until they end up in a tangle of roads that lead into a better or worse life, depending on which one you choose. This literary piece may end up looking half like a huge nod to the lives of musical snobs, but a closer inspection at the bigger picture may unveil to you something so familiar. What you’ll see is a portrait of life as we often make it: a multiplex of twists and turns that exist not only so we can prove ourselves that we can’t stay trapped in a place where we’re not happy, but also to add to life’s no-nonsense beauty.
I was told that Nick Hornby’s roots are a combo of ‘music and messy relationships’, and it’s ever apparent in Juliet, Naked. It doesn’t take me too long to ease to the sound of Hornby’s storytelling voice, even if he shifts every so often between the three main characters. Maybe it’s because my bookshelf has been saturated with too many YA lit lately, but his writing style seems to be a breath of fresh air. I’m totally scribbling down Hornby’s complete oeuvre in my Christmas wish list.
The characters are astonishingly human and well-rounded. Their thought processes give them the mold of their personalities, with their doubts and fears acting as fingers that knead on their very being until they are as palpable as a person sitting next to the reader. Hornby knows how to extract the precise words we need to let out from the otherwise wordless complexity of aloneness and loneliness. Why do some people stay in an ‘okay’ situation rather than venturing forth to find a ‘great’ one? How can too much caution cause so many regrets that it can rival ones created because of carelessness? These questions are answered in the book.
We see details of Crowe’s daily life as he unwittingly pushes his third marriage into the brink of failure; we see how Annie clings not-so-tightly to a live-in setup she’s enduring for fifteen years. It’s safe to say that banality takes the forefront in most chapters. This could have triggered a negative reaction from anyone who wants to read something extraordinary, but only if not handled deftly. Hornby purposely uses this facileness to encapsulate the feeling of being trapped and hopeless in the cage you built yourself.
I couldn’t say it’s excellent plot-wise, though. It makes me a tad sad when a narrative has such good characters that don’t fit well with the rather middle-of-the-road storyline. And it has nothing to do with the abovementioned banalities; it’s all about the plot that’s too easy to recognize (if not actually predict). I’ve seen it from miles away, even before halfway through the novel—a fact that didn’t stop me from finishing it.
If anything, this book is the literary equivalent of a peculiar symphony that gives us a déjà vu whenever we listen to it—or jamais vu in my case, because I think I’m too young to feel like it’s too late for my life to have some kind of redemption after taking the wrong path. Not only is this a story that severs the line dividing musical evangelism and beastlike fanaticism. It’s also a story of managing to find the right moment to restart, which is often construed in three letters: NOW. It’s an overwrought power balladry of passion and hope, one that you know could have stuck to its G-Clef cleanliness but instead plunged an octave lower to poke with the deeper undercurrents of its chosen theme.
3.5 stars for an unforgettable read.