Rock and Roll Book Club: Emma Brodie's 'Songs in Ursa Major' reimagines the relationship between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor

Book on keyboard: 'Songs in Ursa Major.'
Emma Brodie's 'Songs in Ursa Major.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Novelists looking to set stories in the music world have recently been drawn to the late '60s and early '70s. In 2019 there was Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & the Six; then, last year there was David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue. There's just something tantalizing about a world where rock gods walked among us, where you could run into David Bowie at a party or hang out with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel.

Or, where you could run into James Taylor on Martha's Vineyard, maybe because your aunt's helping to provide in-home care after he crashes his motorcycle, and you get to fill in one day. That's what happens to Joni Mitchell in Emma Brodie's new novel Songs in Ursa Major...except it's not Martha's Vineyard, it's "Bayleen Island." It's not James Taylor, it's "Jesse Reid." And it's not Joni Mitchell, it's "Jane Quinn."

A breezier, more intimate read than either Reid's book or Mitchell's, Songs in Ursa Major helps to humanize the kind of musicians who can seem superhuman. Brodie's Jesse is a great talent and a kind but flawed soul; Jane is drawn less to his celebrity than to the fact that, like her, he understands his world through music. The novel follows a musical arc alongside its plotline: having found success with a certain brand of mellow rock, Jesse hews his course. Jane, on the other hand, starts with a band playing pop-friendly songs like a number called "Spring Fling" and then dives far deeper, swimming into strange waters where Jesse cannot follow. By that time it's far too late for their relationship, though: their breakup helps inspire her visionary solo breakout album.

Brodie poignantly captures the artistic dynamic in a novel that, while it's unassuming enough to be a beach read, captures some essential dimensions of the music industry: the label that tries to pluck Jane out of her band and pair her with a highly connected superproducer who becomes the book's most nefarious villain, the exhausting thrill of life on the road, and especially the mixed blessing of having your name tied to a fellow star.

As you might expect and perhaps even hope, Songs in Ursa Major is a bit of a steamy read, but Brodie doesn't linger in the specifics of her sex scenes. ("He pulled her into Danny Lambert's bath house and nailed her on top of a stack of foam pool-toys.") She also doesn't go in for big set pieces; there's a music festival that gives Jane her big break when her band fills in for an ailing Jesse, a breakthrough solo set at the Troubadour (natch), and even a Grammys appearance, but throughout, the focus is less on the setting than on Jane's inner world as she tries to make sense of her complicated family life (her cousin has a baby with Jane's drummer, and that's the least of it) and her enduring connection to a musician who's quietly but inexorably heading down the path of '70s excess.

If you're the kind of reader who likes to soundtrack your summer evenings with Blue, or who wonders how an artist — *cough* James Taylor — with so much talent and such an interesting personal life could fall into a pattern of pleasant but predictable releases, Songs in Ursa Major will be a bittersweet treat to pack into your beach bag.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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