The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. He is poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance until his motorcycle crashes on the way to the show. Jane Quinn is a Bayleen Island local whose music flows as naturally as her long blond hair. When she and her bandmates are asked to play in Jesse Reid’s place at the festival, it almost doesn’t seem real. But she plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime. A star is born.
Jesse stays on the island to recover from his near-fatal accident, and he strikes up a friendship with Jane, coaching her through the production of her first record. As Jane contends with the music industry’s sexism, Jesse becomes her advocate, and what begins as a shared calling soon becomes a passionate love affair. On tour with Jesse, Jane is so captivated by the giant stadiums, the late nights, the wild parties, and the media attention that she is blind-sided when she stumbles on the dark secret beneath Jesse’s music. With nowhere to turn, Jane must reckon with the shadows of her own past; what follows is the birth of one of most iconic albums of all time.
I didn’t know what to expect based on the inventive title, but Songs in Ursa Major is a richly crafted debut novel, and it was a pleasure to read a novel so well written and edited. After checking out the author’s bio, I understood why it was so well done. Emma Brodie is a pro. Currently an executive editor at Little Brown’s Voracious imprint, she has been in the publishing business for ten years.
Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?
It is bittersweet and unconventional, both qualities I admire in a book. I also appreciate learning something as I read. Here, I developed a limited understanding of the inner workings of the music business and the power agents and labels wield over their artists. Being a recording artist—or any kind of artist—isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s hard work that may never pay dividends. I should say, however, that there is too much detail on music, how to write a song, for example, and while citing fictional song lyrics illustrates the author’s creativity, they became tedious, and I eventually skipped past them.
There is also a romantic element to the novel, a complicated, messy one that is more akin to real life that most “romance novels.” (Incidentally, the chatter out there is that the relationship between Jane and Jesse is based on that between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.) Oh, I almost forgot, there is even something for mystery buffs out there.
I look forward to more splendid books from Emma Brodie down the line. 4 stars.
Genre: Historical fiction, Romance
Read-alikes: Daisy Jones & the Six (Taylor Jenkins, Reid), The Story of John Nightly (Tot Taylor), and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Dawnie Walton)