The three protagonists of Nick Hornby’s sixth novel look up to find maturity bearing down upon them with the force of a semi. Hornby has been taking the pulse of modern manhood since the 1992 football memoir Fever Pitch (without once quickening it, his detractors would say), but Juliet, Naked raises the stakes on the discussion in his most introspective, hopeful fiction since About A Boy.
The untrumpeted arrival of a CD in the mail shatters the domestic peace between Duncan and Annie, a no-longer-young couple who, in their passions for music and art, resemble Rob and Laura from High Fidelity, plus 10 years and a move to the English countryside. Duncan’s particular obsession is with reclusive ’80s musician Tucker Crowe (described, in the joyful hyperbole of his first record label, as a Dylan-Cohen-Springsteen hybrid) but Annie gets the first listen of his latest release, the stripped-down version of his famous breakup album, Juliet. And when she ventures to write a review of it for the fan site Duncan runs, she receives an e-mail purporting to be from Crowe himself, now a stay-at-home dad with his own tally of failures, among them the fact that he composed his best record for a girl not worth the trouble.
Hornby’s dealt with relationships unraveling against a backdrop of cultural obsession before, but here he takes the long view on those preoccupations. The extent to which Duncan and Annie cling to their interests as self-definition extend to cringe-worthy lengths—as when Duncan struggles to make a good impression on his coworker by comparing her to The Wire—but an E. M. Forster-esque sadness creeps in as they separately arrive at a reckoning where cultural curiosity forms only a partial bulwark against death.
Yet while that world isn’t enough, they’d never choose to leave it. And the same is true for Tucker Crowe, who must face the ways his body of work changed lives—though the book’s sly, winking coda undermines this slightly. Juliet, Naked plays with the notion that the collector’s true terrain is the might-have-been, but for all its clever asides, it demonstrates Hornby’s assured steps toward confronting on the page what his audience cannot avoid: growing up at last.