A young singer finds herself experiencing the highs and lows of the music industry
The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. Tall and soft-spoken, with eyes blue as stone-washed denim, Jesse Reid’s intricate guitar riffs and supple baritone are poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance. That is, 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 Jane plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime, stopping Jesse’s disappointed fans in their tracks: 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 starts 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.
Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?
There’s been a bit of an uptick in the number of nostalgic, music-related novels published recently — in part, no doubt, to the considerable success of Daisy Jones & the Six. This is no bad thing, given that I’m a fan of the sub-genre. Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major is the latest, buzzed-about novel in this oeuvre, and it’s not hard to see why. It ticks all the boxes, and is an enjoyable (if slightly flawed) read.
Jane Quinn is launched into stardom one night, when she and her band take the spot of a local superstar at a folk festival. The festival, a long-running event in a quaint setting, has been a real draw for years, and Jane’s luminous talent grabs the spotlight. With the help of a powerful agent and manager, and just a bit of quid-pro-quo with a local journalist, the band gets a recording deal and things start to move quite quickly for them. A tour with Jesse Reid, a growing and energetic fanbase, and rumours of romance between the two leads — all of this builds a nice foundation for attention and record sales. However, Jane et al also quickly come into contact with the worst sides of the record industry: sexism, predatory executives, swollen egos, temptation, exploitation, and more. The novel follows the somewhat rollercoaster career of Jane, and the many intersections between her life and Jesse’s. It lays bare the inconsistencies, the biases, and sexism of the industry and its expectations for its male and female stars.
Let’s start with what the novel does well. The characters are well-drawn, varied, and realistic. The author’s prose is excellent, too, and the novel features plenty of great turns of phrase, lovely descriptions, and so forth. I very much enjoyed spending time with Jane and Jesse, and also getting to know some of the supporting cast. All of the behind-the-scenes stuff was quite well done. However, it lacked some of the nuance and subtlety of Daisy Jones…, which managed to say a lot without actually saying it. It feels like Brodie doesn’t want to leave any doubt in readers’ minds of what she’s trying to say about the music industry and its double-standards. Given that most people (if not all) will be completely aware of this double-standard in every walk of life, it comes across as rather blunt, to the detriment of the overall story, which can feel like it lurches about a bit.
That being said, given recent revelations about the behaviour of certain men in show business, the somewhat cartoonish characters in Songs in Ursa Major actually pale in comparison to real people — some of whom have been shown to be truly monstrous. (How many times have we recently heard, seen, or read words to the effect of, “If I pitched this in a writing room/for a novel, it would be dismissed as unrealistic” when referring to real people’s behaviour?)
The way Brodie writes Jane’s and Jesse’s relationship, with all of its ups-and-downs is quite compelling. It’s by no means a clean or fairytale romance. Not wanting to spoil anything prohibits me from going into any more detail, but their dynamic is interesting (based on Joni Mitchell’s relationship with James Taylor, apparently), and the ways in which their trials and tribulations informs their artistic output it realistically and interestingly told. Jane’s family secret was an odd inclusion, and one that ultimately didn’t impact the story as much as I think it was meant to. The conclusion to the story was also very good, and not what I’d expected.
While the use of comparative titles is a useful tool in book marketing — it is, after all, what put this novel on my radar — it can also be a double-edged sword. When a new novel doesn’t meet the expectations raised by a comp, it can be unfortunate. And I write that knowing it’s not fair to compare this novel to one of my favourite reads of the past five years (perhaps more). Nevertheless, while there was a lot in Songs in Ursa Major to like, it didn’t feel quite as assured, nor did it have as smooth a narrative flow. Despite its minor flaws (and they are minor), I did enjoy reading the novel, and I look forward to reading whatever Brodie writes next.
If you’re a fan of books with a strong musical focus, with strong characters and well-written interpersonal relationships, then I think you’ll find a lot to like here. Recommended.