Movies and Books of the month|

Joni Mitchell Wally Breese

Photo: Joni Mitchell and Wally Breese (from her website) | By Chris Vognar, Yahoo | It’s a tricky business, basing a novel on a real-life relationship between two people. Obsessives will demand facts rather than fiction. Hew too closely to the record, however, and you choke off the imagination.

Emma Brodie toes this line with zest and balance in her debut novel, “Songs in Ursa Major.” The book is very much based on the love affair and mutual muse-hood of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, leading lights of the folk-rock world and onetime residents of L.A.’s Edenic Laurel Canyon. But from the very start, it stretches out and becomes its own thing. Brodie works with big themes — individuation, mental illness, legacy, self-destruction and redemption — but her touch is lighter than an onshore breeze. Little surprise that Village Roadshow has scooped the novel up for development as a movie.

Jane Quinn lives on a sleepy Northeastern island, “a stone’s throw off the coast of Massachusetts,” with her extended family. It’s 1969 and she leads a band, the Breakers, that performs in relative anonymity. That changes fast when budding superstar Jesse Reid wrecks his motorcycle en route to the Island Folk Fest. In a jam, festival organizers pluck the Breakers from the amateur stage down the hill. An A&R guy catches the set. And, as in the movies, a star is born.
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Brodie, formerly an editor at Little, Brown, has a wicked knack for locating the tone of various music types: journalists, producers, A&R scouts and, of course, prodigiously talented singer-songwriters. Except Jane, as they say, is different. Bold but vulnerable, whip-smart and earthy, she’s easy to root for from the moment she takes the stage at that first big show.

Excited to get a shot, she’s also wary of what the music industry might do to her. Jane is especially hesitant as she’s drawn into the orbit of Jesse, who is recovering from the motorcycle crash on the island. Jane wants success on her terms, and as she falls hard for Jesse, she also wants to keep some emotional distance from a man who always seems just out of reach.

You can tell when a novelist truly loves her heroes and despises her villains. As Jane fights to get her due in a man’s, man’s, man’s world, navigating the experiences that eventually inform her equivalent of Mitchell’s breakthrough album, “Blue” (whose 50th anniversary falls on the day of this book’s release), you can feel Brodie pulling to lift her above the crowd.

But “Ursa Major” is plotted so tightly, its characters so vividly rendered, that you barely notice the author’s thumb on the scale. Jane, with all her insecurities and appetites, is no more perfect than any other character here; one extended sequence finds her seducing a photographer and throwing him away. Yet Brodie lets you know that in her essence, she is special. As that Rolling Stone scribe puts it, “Her loveliness felt personal — it was impossible to look at her and not take flight in some small part of you.”

Of course, every hero needs a villain. Brodie’s is Vincent Ray, an allegedly visionary producer who can’t stomach the idea of a female artist having her own ideas. He lays as many traps for Jane as he can, always looking for a way to derail her career. You feel a cold blast every time he enters a scene and asserts himself with alpha male mind games. His presence makes you cheer for Jane even harder.
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If you want to play a game of “Where’s Joni” with the novel, you can always pick up David Yaffe’s 2017 biography, “Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell.” But “Songs in Ursa Major” deserves to be enjoyed as is, without connecting the dots. Fiction, after all, is fiction. Brodie is very good at it, and — like Joni and like Jane — a voice well worth listening to.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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