As strange as it may seem ensconced in our era of Taylor, Ariana, Gaga, and other perpetually chart-topping women, “girl groups” were once seen by record execs as risky bets. The music world of the 1960s, from the studios to the stages, was dominated by men, not because there weren’t women like Diana Ross and Janis Joplin out there, but because few women, solo or as part of a group, even got the opportunity to shoot for the stars.
It is this male-dominated, and frequently misogynistic, world that greets 19-year-old Jane Quinn in “Songs in Ursa Major,” Emma Brodie’s delightfully engaging novel about music and chasing after your dreams. It’s 1969. Jane is the lead singer of the Breakers, a quartet of Bayleen Island locals. She and the boys — Rich, Greg, and Kyle — slide into the headliner’s slot at Island Folk Fest after heartthrob-on-the-cusp-of-superstardom Jesse Reid crashes his motorcycle.
Despite the lowered expectations of everyone from critics to audience members streaming toward the exits, Jane wows them all, including her bandmates, by opening with the ultimate boss move — a cover version of Jesse’s summertime smash hit. Willy Lambert, Jesse’s manager and one of the good guys, is among the awed onlookers and offers Jane and the Breakers a record contract based on their set.
Jane comes by her confidence honestly, hailing from a close-knit matriarchal island clan that has shunned marriage for seven generations. She lives with her grandma, Elsie; her aunt, Grace; and her 20-year-old cousin, Maggie. Jane’s singer-songwriter mom, Charlotte, went out one night a decade back and never came home.
Jesse and Jane are thrown together when Grace, who is a nurse at the island’s Cedar Crescent Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, is put in 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 are no match for the songbirds’ mutual attractiveness and attraction.
The first part of the novel charts the Breakers’ entry into the industry and their inaugural nationwide tour opening for Jesse’s band, but the narrative is anchored by the relationship between Jane and Jesse, which is based on the real-life romance between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Other big names from the era clearly influenced the story as well, such as Bob Dylan, who had a near fatal motorcycle crash like Jesse, but musicologists can ferret out all the historical hints.
As for Brodie’s fictional couple, they are a classic case of opposites attract. After one album, Jesse is burned out on the “absurd spectacle” of the industry, ready to “cash in before they kick [him] to the curb.” Jane is an idealist, convinced that her love of the crowd and the quality of her music will attract fans. Because of her mother’s legacy, she will never entirely trust the recording industry suits, and an early encounter with a toxic male producer only enforces her inclination to play by her own rules, both musically and personally. She’ll either make it or she won’t, but based only on her merits. Period. Which means no matter how many records it might sell, no matter how many screaming teens might fantasize about holding Jesse in their arms late, late at night, Jane does not want to get pegged as Jesse’s girl.
Brodie, a longtime editor in the publishing world, plays all the right chords in her debut, even if an occasional note (or sex scene) feels off (or like it was written by a different author). Familiar music bio boxes from the creative dynamics of the recording studio to the enticing and acrimonious highs and lows of touring, on-stage and off, are all entertainingly ticked. But what makes “Songs in Ursa Major” really sing is Jane, and Brodie knows just when to leave the road and focus the spotlight directly on her star, what she wants, what she needs, and what she is willing to give up or give away.
Aside from her clear affinity for her characters, Brodie also lovingly renders Bayleen Island, a thinly veiled stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard. Some specifics feel a bit more 2019 than 1969, but she nails the overall aura of island life, from the cliquishness and interconnectivity of a local community (Maggie is pregnant by Greg, the Breaker’s drummer) to the quaint yet puny names of businesses: Elsie’s hair salon is the Widow’s Peak. Even the homes have names, like all good island houses; the Quinn’s is Gray Gables, Jesse’s family refers to their mansion as “the Shack.”
Last year was a bleak-at-best series of days ticked off on indoor calendars, and we could all use a bit of carefree fun as temperatures warm up this year. So whether you’re not quite ready to rip off your mask and go sway in the middle of a festival crowd, or you just need a break from all your post-vaccination celebrations, “Songs in Ursa Major” is a great opening act to the summer.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
Songs in Ursa Major
Knopf, 336 pages, $26.95