Singer wows fictional Martha’s Vineyard in “Songs in Ursa Major”

Strange as it may sound rooted in our era of Taylor, Ariana, Gaga, and other perpetually chart-topping women, “girl groups” were once viewed by record executives as risky bets. The music world of the 1960s, from studios to stages, was dominated by men, not because there weren’t women like Diana Ross and Janis Joplin, but because few women, solo or in groups, even have the opportunity to shoot for the stars.

It’s this male-dominated and often misogynistic world that welcomes 19-year-old Jane Quinn in “Songs in Ursa Major,” Emma Brodie’s delightfully engaging novel about the music and the pursuit of your dreams. It’s 1969. Jane is the lead singer of The Breakers, a quartet of Bayleen Island residents. She and the boys – Rich, Greg and Kyle – slip into the headlining crack at Island Folk Fest after dawn superstar idol Jesse Reid crushes his motorcycle.

Despite the lowered expectations of everyone from critics to members of the public heading for the outings, Jane impresses them all, including her bandmates, by opening up with the ultimate boss stunt – a revival of Jesse’s summer hit. . Willy Lambert, Jesse’s manager and one of the good guys, is among the amazed spectators and offers Jane and the Breakers a recording deal based on their set.

Jane comes through her honest trust, hailing from a tight-knit matriarchal island clan that has avoided marriage for seven generations. She lives with her grandmother, Elsie; his aunt, Grace; and her 20-year-old cousin, Maggie. Charlotte, Jane’s singer-songwriter, went out one night ten years ago and has never come home.

Jesse and Jane are thrown together when Grace, who is a nurse at the island’s Cedar Crescent Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, takes charge of Jesse’s long-term care after his accident. She warns her niece not to get too attached to him, but her pleas ultimately fall short of the songbirds’ mutual attractiveness and attraction.

The first part of the novel traces the Breakers’ entry into the industry and their first nationwide tour for Jesse’s band, but the tale is rooted in Jane and Jesse’s relationship, which is based on the real-life romance between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Other big names of the time also clearly influenced the story, like Bob Dylan, who was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident like Jesse, but musicologists can unearth any historical clues.

As for Brodie’s fictional couple, it is a classic case of the attraction of opposites. After an album, Jesse is exhausted by the industry’s “absurd spectacle”, ready to “cash in before launching [him] at the edge of the sidewalk. Jane is an idealist, convinced that her love of the crowd and the quality of her music will win over fans. Due to her mother’s legacy, she would never fully trust the costumes of the recording industry, and an early encounter with a toxic male producer only reinforces her inclination to play by her own rules, both musically and personally. Either she will get there or she won’t, but based solely on her merits. Period. Which means no matter how many records he might sell, no matter how many screaming teens might fantasize about holding Jesse late, late at night, Jane doesn’t want to be identified as Jesse’s daughter.

Brodie, a longtime editor in the publishing world, plays all the right chords in her early days, even if an occasional note (or sex scene) sounds disturbing (or as if it was written by another author. ). The familiar bio musical boxes, from the creative dynamics of the recording studio to the tantalizing, acrimonious ups and downs of touring, on and off stage, are all entertainingly ticked off. But what really makes “Songs in Ursa Major” sing is Jane, and Brodie just knows when to pull off the road and shine the spotlight straight on her star – what she wants, what she needs and what she needs. she is ready to give up or give. a way.

Aside from her clear affinity for her characters, Brodie also lovingly renders Bayleen Island, a thinly veiled replacement for Martha’s Vineyard. Some details seem a bit more 2019 than in 1969, but it nails the overall aura of island life, closeness and interconnectivity of a local community (Maggie is pregnant with Breaker drummer Greg) to the quaint but puny business names: Elsie’s barber shop is Widow’s Peak. Even the houses have names, like all good island houses; Quinn’s is Gray Gables, Jesse’s family calls their mansion “the cabin”.

Last year has been a series of gloomy days at best on indoor calendars, and we could all have a little worry-free fun as temperatures warm up this year. So, whether you’re not quite ready to rip your mask off and swing in the middle of a crowd of festival-goers, or just need a break from all your post-vaccine celebrations, “Songs in Ursa Major “is a great opening act for Summer.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

Songs in Dipper Major

Emma Brodie

Knopf, 336 pages, $ 26.95

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