Title: Juliet, Naked
Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: Fiction, Novel, Romance
First Published: 2009
I am no Nick Hornby expert, but I do consider myself a fan. I also believe Juliet, Naked is one of Hornby’s best works. In it, the author showcases his unique ability to create something beautiful out of a messed-up relationship and an unhealthy obsession with a washed-out musician.
The novel, in a nutshell, tells the story of how nobody is ever completely beyond redemption—how no life is beyond salvaging. In the book, we follow the lives of our three main characters—Annie, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe. Annie and Duncan are residents of Gooleness, a small, bleak, and dull town in the East Coast of England. Nothing ever happens in Gooleness, the same way nothing ever happens in Duncan and Annie’s 15-year relationship. Like the dead-end town, theirs is a relationship that’s free of burning passion. At least, free of the kind of passion that Annie wants in her life.
Duncan is passionate enough about one particular topic—the retired and reclusive 80s musician, Tucker Crowe. Duncan’s obsession makes him the ultimate Crowologist, an expert in all things Tucker Crowe. He owns thousands of bootlegged copies of Crowe’s performances. He dissects the lyrics of Crowe’s songs to find ‘hidden meaning’ that eludes even the actual songwriter. Though almost seeming like a caricature of a ‘fan’, one can’t help but recognize how there’s a bit of Duncan in all of us. That passion Duncan feels for Crowe stems from the same brook where our own unhealthy fascination for Late Greats like Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and in my case, Sylvia Plath, springs from.
And though Annie doesn’t exactly share the obsession Duncan has for Tucker Crowe, she recognizes it, tolerates it. She tolerates it enough to join Duncan on a trip to the States to look at a toilet in a small bar in Minneapolis. Of course, the toilet isn’t just any toilet for Duncan. It is THE toilet where Crowe had an amazing epiphany that caused him to walk out of his own life forever—which isn’t to say he died, so much as disappeared from the face of the earth, its public face anyway. The fact that Tucker Crowe did this right after the release of his most critically acclaimed album, the break-up masterpiece Juliet, just adds to the mystery of his quitting.
Although Annie puts up with Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, cracks in their staid relationship begin to show when the pared down version of Juliet is released. The album becomes known as Juliet, Naked. Duncan, understandably, almost wets himself in excitement after hearing the album. In it, he sees genius. Annie, on the other hand, sees just potential. Both write their respective reviews on a Tucker tribute website, which Duncan owns. But when the real Tucker Crowe contacts Annie, the lives of our three protagonists begin to change drastically.
Now, Hornby has always had the gift of bringing his characters to life. For some odd reason, despite being deeply flawed, all the characters in Juliet, Naked are also quite lovable. Even the music nerd Duncan, with his arrogance and elitism has his great speech, his flaw-free moment.
When Duncan reveals the extent of his obsession with Tucker, the reader can’t help but feel embarrassed for the guy. After spending over 20 years trying to establish himself as a credible and serious Crowologist, he becomes no different from some deranged fan who breaks into someone else’s home. And yet, can one really hate Duncan for it, I wonder? If you had the chance to ransack the drawers of your favorite writer or musician and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t you do the same? That type of dedication is rare, creepy, flawed, and yet so telling of the extent of one’s love. To debase yourself for another—ah, but I digress.
Then, there’s Annie, who is the quintessential modern heroine. Dissatisfaction is her primary mover. At one point in the novel, she asks Tucker Crowe: “What do you do if you think you’ve wasted fifteen years of your life?” To which Tucker, the King of Time Wasted, tells Annie to reevaluate her life by using some complex formula that would account for the years ‘wasted.’ Though the advice was clever enough, I was more struck by the question. Isn’t it completely human to feel like we’ve wasted time? I thought, where does one waste 15 years? And then I realized the answer was in the everyday. We waste it on the sameness of the everyday. We look at the conflict between contentment and happiness without fully grasping how those two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Yes, compromise is necessary in living, but there has to be some sort of self-imposed limit on compromising. And I digress, even more.
Lastly, there’s Tucker Crowe. The washed-up, once-was musician. At the time of the novel, he was a recovering alcoholic who has done nothing in the last 22 years that constitutes as ‘work’. For decades, he depended on his ex-wives to keep him afloat. And though he hates this dependency, he feels powerless to work through it. In a way, Tucker feels like the most hopeless of all three characters. His, seemed like the hardest character to redeem.
And yet, there is some form of redemption for all three characters. Maybe not the kind that’s perfect, but there are lessons learned and changes made. To quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And ever the optimist, I do believe that Duncan, Tucker, and Annie have all taken the first step by the end of the book.
So obviously, one of the central themes of the novel is “Time Lost”. One of the lingering questions from the book is whether or not we can still salvage our remaining years—few as they may seem.
The book’s ending is for the affirmative. Yes, it’s never too late to find happiness. And though the book’s ending is, well, open to interpretation, Annie’s conversation with her shrink, Malcolm, is enough to give the reader some hope. Hope that maybe things will work out for Annie and Tucker, at least.
SPOILER ALERT: How does Juliet, Naked really end?
Well, I find that its ending really depends on what you want to believe. In true Nick Hornby fashion, our dear author gives no certainties of sad or happy endings. The story doesn’t end, it merely stops. It mimics the fluidity of real life.
Now, the first time I read Juliet, Naked, I fell upon the bleakest ending. Like Annie predicted, life slid into place after Tucker. As for Tucker, his next album was a major disappointment.
But upon rereading the book, I discovered the possibility of something good. Maybe, just maybe, Annie and Tucker found their way back to each other. That would certainly explain Tucker’s newfound contentment and new album. After combing the net for like interpretations, I found that a number of readers believe that “Uptown Girl” in the forums is actually Annie. They believe that Annie married Tucker in the end. Also a likely outcome, IMO. I think if we read between the lines hard enough, ala Duncan, maybe we can come up with even more possible endings for the book!
Either way, with its endless possibilities, its endless questions, there is no doubt in my mind that Juliet, Naked is the type of book that is truly worth reading and re-exploring. Highly recommended to all book lovers.