Published in 2021 and written by Emma Brodie, Songs In Ursa Major was clearly created by a fan of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, as well as the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene in general. While the narrative was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages, so many novels about music, love, and drugs too closely resemble Daisy Jones & The Six. Although it may not be fair to compare the two books (as these stories are by no means the same) anything published following Daisy Jones’s 2019 release, that also touches on those three components, is going to evoke Daisy and Billy.
Most of Ursa Major takes place between 1969 and 1971, but even in that short timeframe, a lot happens. The story focuses on Jane Quinn (blonde, beautiful, and an excellent songwriter) and Jesse Reid (untouchable on the music charts with secrets I don’t want to spoil) whose descriptions bare many similarities to Mitchell and Taylor. The two of them meet under unusual circumstances and become one another’s muses. Next, Jane gets discovered as a result of her boldness and Jesse changes her life forever – for better or worse. Isn’t that how the song goes?
As Brodie spins the tale of Jane and Jesse, many issues, milestones, and revelations take place. Not surprisingly, my favorite chapter is 35. It’s a fictional Rolling Stone review of Songs In Ursa Major – the album. Written by the journalist who watches Jane perform as the book begins, the review cleverly serves as a way to summarize how far Jane has come as a writer, singer, and performer. It also highlights her unique matriarchal background and points out that while “not all of the tracks on Ursa Major subscribe to a traditional pop structure…there is never a moment’s doubt that Jane Quinn is in control.” Also, in true Rolling Stone format, the writer handpicks specific songs to analyze. One of my favorite lines, which refers to the session players on the record, is “it’s not until the third or fourth listen that you really begin to hear…how they both ground and propel the record.”
Throughout the story, the reader learns (or is reminded of) that in the 1970s, the music business was unfair, some people get under your skin and stay there, misogyny was prevalent, and that the people wrote unforgettable songs. In terms of writing, timing is a big part of this narrative. Over 200 pages in, the reader finally finds out the secret behind the disappearance of Jane’s mother – a theme that is teased very early on. While I get that the revelation is meant to be a catalyst for the events of the story at large, it takes way too long to arrive. But it is nice to see how much music means to Jane as she explains it “gave purpose to everything [she] did.”
- Brodie loves music and it shows. She either was raised in the record business or did her homework (or both) because she provides an in-depth look at how record companies in the 1970s were so cutthroat they could make or break an artist or band at the push of a button.
- Her details paint a very clear picture of the major characters and their environments – for example, whenever she talks about A&R executive Willy Lambert, she mentions how he wears or puts away his aviators. Also, the book mostly takes place on a tourist destination island in the Northeast and Los Angeles. Brodie’s sense of place when describing both locations is palpable.
- The author clearly depicts what a group of women led by a strong matriarch can achieve and what they will do for one another.
- There are too many ancillary characters that are introduced too quickly. They start making a bit more sense and tapering off as the narrative moves along, but I literally had to write names down in the beginning to keep track.
- It takes a long time to get to both big reveals of the book.
- The number of times characters are described lighting cigarettes is ridiculous – we get it, people smoked in the 1970s.
All that being said, the final chapter – chapter 50 – is perfection. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but the author artistically and emotionally wraps up the stories of all the major players in four pages. There is no question that Brodie knows how to write a finale. So do I recommend this book? Yes – but with trepidation because, while it is a good story and the songs are memorable, we have heard these melodies before.
“It was like watching someone hold a lighter up to a monsoon. The girl was bold as fuck.”
“Jane had a way with string instruments the same as some people had a way with animals; she hadn’t found one she couldn’t tame.”
“The way he looked at her made the space between them seem incidental.”
“burned guitars and shredded vocal chords”
“golden record punctuated the walls at intervals like portholes in a battleship”
“I think you’ll find that sometimes the things we think are protecting us are really holding us back.”
“Don’t run from your pain. Put it to work for you.”
“This writing was the work of excavation; she was digging to uncover the wild forces inside her she had once sought to bury.”
“Jane felt a cavity opening within her, a canyon, a fault line. Then her rage tipped in, like a lit match into sulfur.”
“The song was equal parts dexterity and disenchantment.”
“He looked like the worn horses outside of Central Park with blinders on their eyes.”
“She played with tenderness, every note aching.”
“this had always been the case, and she just hadn’t been able to see it”
“his expression closing like a drawbridge”
“No matter where you roam,
You’ll still find your way home.
No matter where you’ll be,
Little lion, you’ve got me.”