As the crown prince of lad lit, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) has perfected the archetype of the Peter Pan protagonist: an emotionally stunted music obsessive who, with the love of a patient woman, is transformed into a moderately evolved adult. The novelist's latest, Juliet, Naked, spins a new iteration, this time from the perspective of one of those long-suffering women and unlike 2001's How to Be Good, whose female narrator felt like nothing so much as Hornby in drag, it is, genuinely and generously, About a Girl.
Annie, the girl in question, is in fact on the cusp of 40, a museum curator stuck in a drab English village who's beginning to wonder whether ''her whole life had been a waste of time.'' Or more accurately, her 15-year relationship, which is increasingly crowded by a third party: Tucker Crowe, an American singersongwriter with a small, fanatical following spearheaded by his No. 1 fan her boyfriend, Duncan. That the Dylanesque recluse hasn't performed in more than two decades only intensifies the self-proclaimed Crowologist's devotion; for Annie, it represents everything stagnant in their own union. So when a stripped-down version of Crowe's '80s masterwork is released, sending loyalists into a frenzy, Annie unburdens herself online in one of Duncan's chat rooms and unwittingly forges a connection with the mythical man himself.
What follows is a sort of modified How Annie Got Her Groove Back, an endearingly minor-key tale of never-too-lateness told in Hornby's dry, Brit-wit tones. There are no great revelations aside from the ones we expect the main characters to have, which are duly granted but Hornby's clear-eyed affection for the gratifyingly human Annie (and her deeply flawed suitors) reads like the work of a man who is finally, happily all grown up. B+