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Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked" - it's a hit

Nick Hornby has always had an unerring ear for the rhythm and blues of modern love. In his latest novel, a funny, painfully insightful examination of contemporary romance, he mixes that skill with sardonic humor and a pitch-perfect knowledge of pop culture and music and the ways they influence us.

Juliet

In his sidesplitting High Fidelity, Hornby (also author of that other famous grown-lad-finally-grows-up story About a Boy) charted the course of a selfish young man's journey from bad boyfriend to potentially responsible partner, all to the beat of mix tapes and top-five lists. The novel even opens with a list of ``most memorable split-ups.''

A breakup looms in Juliet, Naked, too. Annie and Duncan have been together almost 15 years. But the focus of their relationship has been Duncan's obsession, singer/songwriter Tucker Crowe, who ``had always been part of the package, like a disability.''

In his heyday, Tucker (``BRUCE PLUS BOB PLUS LEONARD EQUALS TUCKER,'' screamed one ad) had churned out a handful of albums, notably his doomed-love masterpiece Juliet, ``which as far as Duncan was concerned, was a darker, deeper, more fully realized collection of songs than the overrated Blood on the Tracks.'' But Tucker proceeded to drink himself senseless and had vanished in 1986. This disappearing act has not, however, deterred modern-day fanatics who daily pick apart rumors, innuendos, mysterious photos and bootleg recordings on the website Duncan devotes to the singer

Though she's hardly a fanatic, Annie likes Tucker's music, too. She's less sure about Duncan and their life together, though. She's 40, wishing she'd had a kid, wondering if there isn't something better out there than working at a dowdy seaside museum in dowdy Gooleness, England, where the 25-foot shark that washed ashore in 1964 is still the biggest news.

And then a stripped-down version of Tucker's seminal work arrives in the mail, sending Annie down a new, not-always-comfortable but interesting path.

Juliet, Naked shifts between the points of view of the perpetually dissatisfied Annie, who finds her voice in blasting Duncan's glowing review of the album, and Tucker -- yes, Tucker! -- who, hopelessly drowning in his imperfect relationship, responds to her review via e-mail. Through their budding friendship, Hornby makes sly, potent observations on love, art, the far-reaching effects of modern communication (``Nobody gets forgotten anymore,'' Annie says. ``It's what the Internet is for. That and pornography'') and our confounding inertia.

``What do you do if you think you've wasted fifteen years of your life?'' Annie asks Tucker. Hornby has an answer, and it's a good one: Listen to your heart.

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