Songs in Ursa Major

Written by Emma Brodie
Review by Susan Lowell

Amidst sex, drugs, and rock and roll, a star is born …

In her accomplished debut novel, Emma Brodie whisks us to another world. It’s 1969 again, and music is playing.

If only Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Carly Simon could time-travel and play their young selves in a movie version—with a great soundtrack, of course! —of this biopic in words. Brodie acknowledges her brilliant sources, and she is brilliant too: in plucking a star-crossed love story out of the hectic musical past, in bringing it to fictional life, and above all in creating music on the written page.

In rhetoric, ekphrasis is the written description of a work of art in another genre. Brodie excels at this exceedingly difficult exercise. “The song was composed in four parts that unfolded in geometric tessellations, beginning with rectangles and ending in stars,” she writes. “Woman, you’ve got a cathedral inside you,” perfectly describes her main character, Jane Quinn, an aspiring singer-songwriter.

Rebellious Jane is only 19. As her career rockily rises, she tumbles in and out of love with Jesse Reid, a devastatingly good-looking star with an equally devastating secret. But Jane, too, has secrets. One is the power of composition, when she feels “the star matter of a new album materializing around her.”

A few quibbles about this excellent novel from a reviewer who actually was 19 in that yeasty, scary year of 1969: pay phones, yes. Tattoos and high fives, no. Why do contemporary people and events barely appear? Where’s Woodstock? The moon landing? Nixon? Protests? Vietnam?

The oddest absence is authentic popular music, a huge part of the zeitgeist. That era had a soundtrack: one song by Joni Mitchell herself inevitably trumps even the cleverest ekphrasis.