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Nick Hornby's Latest Novel: New Tune, Same Key

Juliet, Naked

You don't buy a Van Morrison CD hoping to hear him do something radically new and different, and you shouldn't crack the latest Nick Hornby novel, Juliet, Naked, expecting anything more, or less, than another smart, soft-centered tale of hapless manchildren, precocious actual children and sensible women. This is what Hornby does, he does it well, and he's done it again.

For the past 15 years, Duncan and Annie, an unmarried couple on the verge of middle age, have stagnated together in a dumpy British seaside town. Duncan, a classic Hornby type, is an obsessive fan of Tucker Crowe, a singer-songwriter who, after producing a brilliant breakup album called Juliet, mysteriously dropped out of sight in 1986. Duncan devotes himself to parsing Crowe trivia and posting scholarly disquisitions on a fan site.

Annie — intelligent and more attractive than she knows (another Hornby type) — has recently begun to find Duncan maddening. For one, she wants a baby, and Duncan is just not a family man. For another, she's wearying of his condescension: "Listening to music was something that she did, too, frequently and with great enjoyment, and Duncan somehow managed to spoil it, partly by making her feel that she was no good at it." Then he has an affair.

Annie posts a tart essay on Duncan's Web site that attracts the attention of the actual, elusive Tucker Crowe, thereby lucking into the sweetest revenge ever dreamed of by a woman who squandered her youth on a faithless loser. It's darkly comic material, the Duncan-Annie-Tucker triangle, and Hornby could exploit it more ruthlessly. He could delve into Duncan's humiliation at losing his lover to his idol — and, perhaps even more painfully, his idol to his lover. Hornby could, reasonably, question Annie's motives. Or he could plant a sordid secret in Crowe's past to explain his long ago disappearance.

But that is not the kind of fiction Hornby writes. He wants the best for his characters, and ultimately expects the best from them as well. Uptempo, charming and occasionally wistful — this is Hornby's music.

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Jennifer Reese