Review: Songs in Ursa Major, by Emma Brodie
Knopf, 2021. 324 pp. $27
It’s summer 1969, and the Island Folk Fest awaits the arrival and performance of Jesse Reid, the hottest up-and-coming star of the folk-rock music scene. The fictional Bayleen Island, perhaps a look-alike for Martha’s Vineyard, has always been a tourist destination, and the festival is jammed, having drawn musical artists from all over.
But the locals have serious talent to boast too. Jane Quinn, nineteen, blonde, and preternaturally gifted as a singer and acoustic guitarist, leads her band, the Breakers, to open for Jesse Reid. Except that Jesse crashes his motorcycle, leaving the Breakers to hold center stage — and suddenly, the out-of-town music honchos want to know who this girl is. Assuming she’s marketable.
But as Jane quickly learns, the path to stardom is paved with broken bottles and barbed wire. Yes, once Jesse’s injuries have healed, Pegasus, his label, hires the Breakers to go on tour with his band, opening for them once more. But when it’s rumored that she and Jesse are an item, she can’t tell whether the Breakers, and her, have value for themselves or as the satellite revolving around planet Jesse.
At its best, Songs in Ursa Major offers an intimate view of the cut-and-thrust politics within the music industry, especially those chapters told through the eyes of a Pegasus executive and a sound engineer. I also like the passages in which Jane searches for musical inspiration; the lyrics she composes not only reflect her life and experiences, they remind me of the songs I listened to as a teenager. I see more than a hint of Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, credibly rendered, and I catch an occasional phrase that seems borrowed from my favorite Mitchell album, Blue. The book title, after one of Jane’s songs, is catchy and spot-on. Brodie knows her music.
The author also captures the artist’s dilemma, how to receive the attention and validation she deserves because of her talent while fending off all attempts to own her, reshape her, and turn her into cash, with no regard for aesthetics or her sensibilities. That seems all too real. Less real, perhaps, is how Jane, with no musical training whatsoever — Jesse teaches her to read notes — can pick up almost any instrument and make sophisticated music with it. At age nineteen. Even Mozart took lessons, though I suppose poetic license covers that contingency.
More seriously, I don’t see the Sixties. Vietnam might be referred to twice, parenthetically, and the assassinations and upheavals of ’68 not at all. Since much music from that era spoke with political intent, I’m startled, but it’s not the headlines I’m missing. I don’t sense that Sixties vibe, the feeling in the air that once-accepted beliefs and ways of living must either be thrown away or reinforced. Not everybody wanted change, but you took a position, one way or another. In this narrative, though, no one even cares.
Much else in Songs in Ursa Major feels generic, beginning with the prose. Consider the first page, when a music groupie offers a visiting correspondent a joint:
His exhale became a brushstroke inside an Impressionist painting; swirls of smoke rose in the salty air, tanned limbs and youthful faces interweaving like daisy chains across the meadow. He handed the joint back to the girl and watched her skip into a ring of hippies. Someone had a conga; thrift-store nymphs began dancing to an asynchronous rhythm.
The language, though vivid, feels empty, without emotional resonance. It’s a formulaic rendition of a scene, shorthand for an era in some people’s minds—especially those who didn’t live through it—and though it’s just one descriptive paragraph, it’s representative. So many sentences begin, “She felt…” that at one point, I flipped back to the title page to make sure this book had come from Knopf, the quintessential literary publisher. If a writer can’t show why her protagonist is hurt or angry or what that looks like, I don’t feel it. Involving a reader requires complexity, not shortcuts or buzzwords.
The same holds for the love interest between Jesse and Jane. For a while, I thought I was reading a formula romance — girl and boy lock eyes, go to bed shortly thereafter — but luckily, significant shifts occur, and much goes wrong. Even so, the sex scenes read like a Hollywood fantasy, and, within the love affair, the author withholds the truth behind a crucial secret so as to derive maximum shock value. That’s a trend, these days, I guess, but it’s not credible, and though the revelation surprises me, I feel cheated.
Read Songs in Ursa Major, if you will, for its seamy, appalling glimpse of music moguls. In other ways, I find the novel a disappointment.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.