Nick Hornby is a real rarity: an incredibly successful author you just can't help but feel sorry for. His first novel, High Fidelity, became the kind of freakishly successful book that only hits once in a generation. Publishers blew millions trying to mimic the book's "man-child finds love and grows into responsibility" formula. In the early part of this decade, every publisher tried to launch at least one so-called "lad lit" author with a Fidelity rip-off. (These were the kind of books whose pitch meeting was painfully easy to imagine: "It's just like High Fidelity, only the protagonist works at a thrift store!") And then, against all odds, the movie adaptation starring John Cusack and Jack Black turned out to be an intelligent, well-made film, and Hornby became, for all time, the Guy Who Wrote High Fidelity.

Hornby parlayed his literary fame into good work: He raised thousands of dollars for autism research with his entertaining anthology Speaking with the Angel and wrote a regular column for the Believer called "Stuff I've Been Reading." But his fiction has never quite been able to get out of Fidelity's shadow. His next novel, About a Boy, was High Fidelity meets fatherhood, and then he ran in the opposite direction: His two most recent novels for adults, How to Be Good and A Long Way Down, read like conscious efforts to shake the cool romance-author vibe.

Hornby's newest novel, Juliet, Naked, is his first full-blown return to romance since Fidelity. It's about Tucker Crowe, a man-child of a rock star who fled the spotlight to live out the rest of his life as a recluse. Crowe eventually meets a woman named Annie, whose boyfriend, Duncan, is one of dozens of hard-core Crowe fans who obsessively dissect the enigmatic musician's life and work on internet message boards.

Whereas Hornby's last two novels were about misanthropy and suicide, respectively, Naked focuses on some of Hornby's old strengths: The book is full of painfully sharp observational prose about relationships. Any heterosexual woman will immediately recognize Duncan's condescending attitude toward Annie's interest in popular culture. (Duncan is sure that without his guidance, Annie "was hardly going to be able to respond to the kind of stark adult truths spread generously through" a Crowe album, and that "she'd get it one day, maybe, but clearly not for a few years yet.")

Naked is a romance without any airbrushing. Crowe is older than Hornby's usual protagonists—he's in his 50s, with five (mostly) illegitimate children—and he and Annie are both too jaded to believe in something like the infallible power of love, but they're optimistic enough to believe in something better than what they've got. Hornby's obvious affection for his characters and their story makes Naked a clear and unashamed successor to High Fidelity. recommended

Nick Hornby reads Fri Oct 9, Central Library, 7 pm, free.