Friday, March 24, 2023

Songs in Ursa Major looks back to the folk scene of 1960s-70s America

Has anyone else been watching Daisy Jones & the Six on Amazon Prime? I haven’t read the novel (by Taylor Jenkins Reid), about the tumultuous relationship between the two lead singers in a ‘70s rock band, but I’ve been glued to the show, which has been dropping several new episodes each week. The final two remain unwatched as of now, and I’m anxious to see how the series ends.

When I went in search of a readalike novel, I found Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major, which has been hiding in my NetGalley queue for too long. Jane Quinn, the 19-year-old lead singer and guitarist for a band called The Breakers in 1969, isn’t Daisy Jones – while Jane has plenty of moxie and can party with the best of them, she’s more even-keeled. Plus her genre is more folk than rock.

A lifelong resident of Bayleen Island off the Massachusetts coast, Jane gets her big break at their summer folk festival, which attracts fans and tourists from across America. When the famous blue-eyed singer-songwriter Jesse Reid wrecks his car and misses his slot on the festival stage, Jane steps in, singing Jesse’s own song – and the rest is history. She seems destined for stardom, but a sexist record executive, Jane’s growing relationship with Jesse, and her own lack of songwriting confidence get in her way.

The novel, the author’s debut, is reportedly based on the affair between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. It’s marketed as a love story, but I found it more of a celebration of feminine freedom. Jane comes from a generations-long line of unmarried, independent women.  A young woman with long, golden hair and a peasant blouse, Jane takes advantage of her opportunity on stage in a “bold as f-ck” way.  She thrives in the spotlight, and the opening scene puts you in her shimmering presence and makes you wish her performance existed on YouTube. She and Jesse have undeniable chemistry, though their relationship conceals some secrets, which of course are bound to come out eventually.

Through many ups and downs, musically and professionally, Brodie weaves the narrative around Jane's character, letting us see her from within and without – sweeping from center stage out to the audience and back. Following the great opening, it took me a while to be fully drawn into the story, and I would have liked more context. Folk music of the era spoke of politics and social change, but we don’t see much of the historical background that birthed these songs. As a portrait of a woman’s bumpy path to lasting fame, it’s much more successful, and the ending is perfect, providing a satisfying outcome for these creative characters.

Songs in Ursa Major was first published by Knopf. The cover images above come from the hardback (2021) and the paperback (2022).

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