Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie

I read the first half of this book and wrote a blog about it. I was fairly critical. I didn’t think I would keep reading. And yet I was interested enough in the characters that decided to keep going. And I’m glad I did, I’m glad I read this book.

Why was I critical of the book at first, you ask? Two main reasons. The first is that I thought the writing was overdone with the kind of self-conscious over-adjectivization that new writers sometimes do. It felt clunky and didn’t make for smooth reading.

You want examples?  Ok, here’s the opening paragraph of the book:

“As a stagehand cleared the dismantled pieces of Flower Moon’s drum set, the last shred of daylight formed a golden curve around the cymbal. It winked at the crowd, then the red sun slipped into the sea. In the gathering dusk, the platform shimmered like an enamel shell, reverberating with the audience’s anticipation.” (p. 3)

Sorry, but I found that tough to wade through. And here’s another sentence a few paragraphs later:

“His exhale became a brushstroke inside an Impressionist painting; swirls of smoke rose in the salty air, tanned limbs and youthful faces interweaving like daisy chains across the meadow.”

You may not agree, but to me it felt forced.

And then there was the James Taylor thing. Now you should know, JT is my musical god. I grew up adoring him and his music and to this day, if you’re gonna throw me on a desert island, just give me the “Sweet Baby James” album and I’ll be fine.

Taylor’s first album is referred to as the Apple album, because it was produced at Apple Studios in England, which is where the Beatles recorded. He was the first non-Beatle musician that Apple took on.  So when the author started using slightly altered lines from a song from that album (just knockin’ around the Zoo…there’s bars on all the windows) I knew from whence she was getting this material and it felt almost plagiaristic to me. And then a character refers to one of the musicians in the book’s first album as having all these instrumentals between the songs, including using harpsichord… well, that’s the Apple album verbatim! (Can music be verbatim?)

If you read the People magazine review of this book before you read the book, or, I suppose, other reviews that are out there, you will already know what I figured out myself. The main male character of the book, musician Jesse Reid, is in fact based on James Taylor. And the main female, Jane Quinn, is apparently based on Joni Mitchell, and the whole book is based on a romance they had with each other. And when I got to the end and read the acknowledgements, the author thanks her father for introducing her to the album “Sweet Baby James.” (Mine! It’s mine and mine only!)

A book that’s based on someone else’s story. Happens all the time. Books based on stories both real and also fictional – plenty of rewrites of classic novels. I’m working on one myself. So I guess that’s acceptable. But it just felt slightly uncomfortable to me, how much she relied on Taylor’s actual lyrics. I’m not sure if she did the same with Joni Mitchell; I know her music of course, but am not as familiar with her lyrics.

Anyway, the story begins in 1969 and it’s about Jane & Jesse and it’s about the folk rock music scene of the time and I will agree with what one reviewer said, which is that this author writes about music really well. I love how she describes the music industry, like when she takes us into the studio for the making of an album, I like how she shows us the songwriting process and the creative process in general, and I like how she describes how music sounds (which is hard to do!).

And here’s another thing I like: I like how Jane comes in to her own. If you read my blog about Joshua Henkin’s Morningside Heights, you’ll recall that I criticized him for giving us a female protagonist who found herself through a man. Jane finds herself through herself. And the way the author describes how this happens is thoughtful, insightful, and moving.

The second half of the book was much better than the first, I thought. I think the writer really came into her stride, literarily speaking, in part 2. It’s too bad she didn’t take her newly-honed style, one which is less fraught with adjectives, and go back and clean up the first part. But still, she’s written a compelling story with interesting character development as well as an interesting and vividly drawn milieu. I guess I’ll forgive her for coopting my man JT.  (maybe)

Author: Lynn Rosen

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