As many of you know, a few months ago I read a more recent novel by Nick Hornby called Juliet, Naked. It has often been compared to his classic 1995 novel High Fidelity due to its themes of music obsession and the typically dysfunctional characters that we have all come to expect from Hornby in any of his novels, and that, strangely and a little alarmingly, most readers find they can relate to with great ease.
But, as many of you might remember, I had some issues with Juliet, Naked. The characters were a little too dysfunctional in places, one of them so much so that I just wanted to attack him in the face with bees or a refrigerator or something else exceedingly painful. While I myself am a bit of a music obsessive, I found myself repulsed by the arrogance of that particular character, and it left a bit of a dirty taste in my mouth as I read the book. I liked it, but it disappointed me a bit.
So I came to High Fidelity with high expectations, stemming from many reviews and recommendations from fellow bloggers and other critics. I wanted to know why people preferred this novel written so much earlier in Hornby’s career, what exactly it got right and whether I agreed or not.
The story is based around Rob, a mid-30s record shop owner who is obsessed with music and making lists. When his girlfriend Laura dumps him, he finds himself questioning his life and identity. To help with his reflections, he decides to contact all the ex-girlfriends who broke his heart through his life (whom he introduces briefly at the start of the novel, along with the circumstances of each relationship’s demise). All the while, Laura is never fully extricated from his life, as Rob questions why that relationship didn’t work, what is really important to him, and why.
It’s a simple premise, but it works surprisingly well and remains entertaining up until the end. Although Rob is quite sulky and pathetic at many points in the story, he is still quite likeable, and as a reader you keep wanting him to pick up the pieces of his life and just sort himself out already. It soon becomes clear that Laura is not as together as Rob thinks she is, either, and neither are many of the people around Rob who have been or are in his life, past and present, and that’s kind of the point of the novel, I feel – we’re all trying to figure ourselves out, most of the time, even if we seem like we know what we’re doing. I also think that’s why the characters in this book are so much easier to relate to, because while they are flawed, they are believably flawed and not caught up in their own pretentiousness.
The writing style is inimitably Nick Hornby, but is also perhaps the best of his writing out of his novels I’ve read so far. It’s easy to read, light-hearted and funny, yet tinged with melancholy and just enough philosophical reflection to keep it thought provoking throughout. The chapters are short and sharp, making it annoyingly hard to put down once you get into it, and at just under 250 pages you could knock this one out on a rainy afternoon if you felt so inclined.
With High Fidelity, Hornby has managed to write a great book about love, music, and life that is appealing to many people, and its greatest strength lies in its very imperfections of character and story. It isn’t a perfect story, just a very good one. If you read just one Nick Hornby novel, make it this one.
Have you read High Fidelity before? What are your thoughts?
Have you read any other good books with music as a major theme?