‘They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet. The simple truth of this only struck Annie when they were actually inside it: apart from the graffiti on the walls, some of which made some kind of reference to the toilet’s importance in musical history, it was dank, dark, smelly and entirely unremarkable.’ And so Nick Hornby’s latest novel, Juliet Naked begins with main protagonists, Annie and Duncan travelling across the states to fulfil Duncan’s dream of visiting the ‘landmark sights’ of reclusive, tortured-genius and songwriter, Tucker Crowe.
Early on we understand that Annie and Duncan’s relationship is not typical, and that there are gaping emotional holes left unattended; ‘The decision not to have children had never been taken, and nor had there been any discussion resulting in a postponement of the decision… Annie could imagine herself as a mother, but Duncan was nobody’s idea of a father.’ Nick Hornby sets in motion from page one that Duncan is no ‘reader’s’ idea of a hero, a point confirmed when he is persuaded by another fan to break into a house of ‘Juliet’; to have a much needed pee and peek into the life of Tucker’s supposed lost love.
Whilst Duncan is being Tucker crazy, Annie silently grieves at being childless as she approaches forty. A poignant theme that runs throughout Hornby’s novel and is tackled delicately, allowing for greater impact and sympathy. Creativity and obsession are other issues Hornby takes a look at along with regret. Regret at letting life past you by as you sleepwalk, barely conscious of being in motion, until suddenly it is too late.
Tucker Crowe, who we soon meet, is living with his latest partner, Cat, although their relationship is also fading towards the exit sign, and his six-year-old son, Jackson; the only child of his that he knows and loves. Their father-son relationship is both touching and comedic, proving Hornby has not lost his ability to make you cry with laughter.
As Annie regrets her childlessness and years wasted with a man like Duncan, Tucker has a lifetime of regret, with several ex-wives and partners in tow, children he doesn’t know or even want to, and years lost to alcoholism; along with a crumpled belief of his own creativity.
Life changes for all three characters when an updated rendition of Juliet Naked is released and Duncan writes an overly enthusiastic review of this latest edition; in his eagerness to be the first ‘crowologist’ to appraise the work of Tucker in two decades. This posting creates a whirlwind response from other fans and also ignites something buried in Annie, angered by Duncan’s view that his interpretation of Crowe’s work has to be the right one. In response, Annie posts a reply stating that this latest version is not as powerful as the initial one, and earns herself a reply from the Tucker Crowe who agrees with her.
Amidst a brewing storm at home, Duncan feels Annie has let him down by challenging his view on Tucker, their relationship unravels, encouraging Duncan to sleep with a work colleague. Annie is drawn to Tucker, who has recently been dumped by Cat, and finds herself flirting with him via their emails, imagining a love life beyond the limitations of Duncan, which culminates in her throwing Duncan out of their home.
Annie, still struggling with the childless issue, continues to be in contact with Tucker; and after a rather bizarre ‘almost one night stand’ that seems contrived and out of place, she is off to London to meet up with Tucker, who has been visiting his daughter, Lizzie, who is in hospital having suffered a miscarriage. Whilst there, Tucker changes from patient to visitor when he suffers a mild heart attack.
At this point the plot, for me, becomes stretched too thin for believability and the pace is lost, with ex-wives and angry, disinterested children flying in to London to visit Tucker. Scenes seem to lose their sizzle and the dialogue, previously punchy and brilliant feels strained and stilted.
Predictably, Tucker ends up returning home with Annie, who is nursing a heavy crush on him, and ends up meeting Duncan, the sort of fan he despises. In these final scenes we lose any real essence of these characters’ as we have known them, now they are in situations far beyond their restrictive lives. However, it feels less like the characters’ have developed through the novel than they have been ‘constructed’ by Hornby; and for me, the power he begins with, has faded.
By the conclusion of the novel, Tucker returns to the States having slept with Annie, who has tricked him into unprotected sex in the hope of getting pregnant. Annie is filled with a renewed sense of hope for a new life, with or without a baby, and Tucker releases a new album. Thankfully, though, there are no traditional, sugar-coated ‘happy endings’ or neat and tidy wrapping up of their lives.
Hornby’s characters are undoubtedly real, and at times dislikeable; which worked. However we establish no emotional attachment to them and so when their complicated lives and story ends there is no compulsion to ponder on what may have become of them, to even care.
On occasion, Nick Hornby manages to sum up the changes and challenges of our modern world, and our new technology, and you find yourself nodding in agreement. In other places, you question the relevance of scenes, such as those with Malcolm the useless therapist who suddenly appears, purely to become the catalyst of Annie’s epiphany.
There is no doubt that Juliet Naked is a good read, and one that makes you laugh hard, in places. It tackles themes that touch you, forcing you to examine your own life, your own obsessions, and your own regrets. And yet, finishing the novel, there is a sense that Juliet Naked hasn’t quite been all she could have been, leaving you slightly disappointed that she has not lived up to expectations.