Today I’m spotlighting a wonderful book from author Emma Brodie, the perfect antidote to the Glastonbury blues. This is one of a few proofs I’ve received recently that are based in the world of music. It had me thinking about the best gigs I’ve gone to and how much I’ve missed seeing live music. My last gig before lockdown was Manic Street Preachers in Manchester. I hadn’t seen them since the nineties so it was like revisiting my teenage years and they were just as incredible. However, the gig I remember most as one of those ‘where were you when…’ moments was in 1994 at Alexandra Palace. The main act was my favourite nineties band, Blur and just around the same time as the big Blur V Oasis battle. Just as exciting, the support act was Pulp, only months before they released Common People and became huge. This really was a zeitgeist moment in Britpop and I was there.
THE SUMMER OF 1969
From the moment Jane Quinn steps barefoot onto the main stage at Island Folk festival, her golden hair glinting, her voice soaring into the summer dusk, a star is born – and so is a passionate love story.
Jane’s band hits the road with none other than Jesse Reid, the musician whose bright blue eyes are setting hearts alight everywhere. And as the summer streaks by in a haze of crowds, wild nights and magenta sunsets, Jane is pulled into the orbit of Jesse’s star.
But Jesse’s rise could mean Jane’s fall. And when she discovers a dark secret beneath his music, she picks up her guitar and writes her heartache into the album that could make or break her: Songs in Ursa Major.
Set against the heady haze of the 70s and alive with music, sex and sun-soaked hedonism, SONGS IN URSA MAJOR is an unforgettable debut and the soundtrack to a love story like no other.
I would like to thank Zaffre and Bonnier Books for my proof copy and I look forward to telling you all about it.
Synopsis: From the internationally bestselling author of The Secret Wife comes a tale of love, sacrifice and betrayal, available now.
Published in the US as Jackie and Maria.
JACKIE | When her first marriage ends in tragedy, Jackie Kennedy fears she’ll never love again. But all that changes when she encounters…
ARI | Successful and charming, Ari Onassis is a man who promises her the world. Yet soon after they marry, Jackie learns that his heart also belongs to another…
MARIA | A beautiful, famed singer, Maria Callas is in love with Jackie’s new husband – and she isn’t going to give up.
Little by little, Jackie and Maria’s lives begin to tangle in a dangerous web of secrets, scandal and lies. But with both women determined to make Ari theirs alone, the stakes are high. How far will they go for true love?
My Thoughts | I was drawn to this book because I’ve always had an interest in the Kennedys and have read a lot of fiction and biography around Jackie and JFK. However, I didn’t know a lot about her marriage to Aristotle Onassis or how their relationship started considering he was in a long term relationship with opera star Maria Callas. I was interested to read a story I knew, but from the perspective of the two women involved rather than the men. I was quickly drawn into the narrative told in alternate chapters from both women and starting when they were still in their first marriages. Jackie is trying to cope with marriage into the politically obsessed Kennedy clan as well as grieving over a lost child and Jack’s indiscretions. Maria is married to Battista Menighini who manages her career, but feels unfulfilled without a child and misrepresented as a diva by the press. Both women have met Onassis and been invited to his yacht, since he likes to entertain the most famous people in the world. I wondered if either woman ever imagined in only a few years they would be rivals.
Both women’s characters were well drawn and I felt I really did get to know the real them, although I felt more of an affinity with Maria – possibly because she was led more by her emotions than Jackie. Although not the diva she was often portrayed as in real life, Maria acts on her emotions and seems more in touch with what she needs. As soon as she falls in love with Ari (Onassis) she acts on it, breaks the news to her husband and risks her reputation to be true to her heart. I also felt a kinship in her grief over struggling to be a mother, something she does have in common with Jackie who has had a miscarriage and loses a daughter at the beginning of the novel. In fact the women have more in common in their backgrounds than I realised, mainly in their relationships with their mothers.
Litsa Callas was a cold and distant mother, in fact such was her disappointment that Maria wasn’t a girl she didn’t even look at her baby daughter for four days. Throughout the novel we see her engage in manipulation, abuse and betrayal of her daughter including selling details of her relationship with Onassis to the world’s press and eventually writing a ‘tell-all’ book about her daughter. In a radio interview Callas recalls the lack of confidence she had in her looks, especially her weight, compared to her mother who was very slim. Callas felt ‘ugly and unwanted’ as a girl, added to this her mother pressed her into relationships with occupying Italian and German soldiers in order to gain money and food during the Axis occupation. Some sources claim that Maria came to no harm, but she sees it as a form of prostitution and the author writes about Maria telling Onassis that she was manhandled by soldiers and on one occasion was almost raped. In a moving account Maria claims her mother had no warmth or sympathy for her daughter on her return from this assault, just continued to put them at risk to earn money.
I was saddened by the scene where Jackie’s daughter is stillborn, adding to her pain Jack is on a flight and she only has her mother for support. Janet Auchincloss was authoritarian and austere, believing in money, beautiful homes and status rather than love and insisting on this for her daughters, regardless of the man. Jackie adored her father ‘Blackjack’ Bouvier who showered her with affection and presents. After her parents divorce, her mother was left short of cash until her remarriage and this left a big impression on Jackie. It was impressed upon her that security was more important than love, but there was still a touch of idealism in Jackie who thought she’d found both love and security in Jack. The author does a great job of showing the reader the differences that open up between Jackie and her in-laws. Jackie is a big reader, intelligent and interested in culture whereas the Kennedys live and breathe politics. She’s more of an introvert, who wouldn’t normally court the limelight and often wishes that Jack’s ambition could be curbed. She worries about the type of First Lady she will be, feeling under constant scrutiny from the Kennedys who think Jack’s wife should appeal more to the average American woman. Jackie’s interest in fashion is shown as a way she expresses herself and I felt this was maybe her only means of expression. Her mother stifles any emotion and she’s encouraged to ignore Jack’s indiscretions too. She isn’t allowed to be honest with anyone about how heartbroken she truly feels. I felt for her so much in the scene where she takes a call from Marilyn Monroe who makes it quite clear she is involved with Jack. Jackie recognises that Marilyn is very fragile and could damage his career irreparably, even in her heartbreak she is thinking of him. Even worse is the part where Jackie overhears a conversation that brings his indiscretions closer to home than she ever imagined in a double betrayal.
This is an immersive piece of historical fiction that completely transported me to the 1960s and the rich elite of the period. Using fashion, interiors and an in-depth knowledge of her characters Gill Paul drew me into a world of privilege I could never have imagined. She drew parallels between these two extraordinary women, but also between families who were as cursed as they were wealthy and powerful. I felt that both women’s upbringings drew them to men who were rich and powerful, but also controlling and possessive. There was no question of Maria or Jackie enjoying the sort of affairs that Kennedy and Onassis conducted. The intense control of their mothers almost groomed them for the lives they chose as women. Although it might have appeared more respectable, it’s not hard to draw parallels between Janet pushing the Bouvier sister towards rich husbands and Litsa pushing her daughters towards occupying soldiers. There was also a connection between their dislike of the limelight, and the ability to have their voices heard – ironic in the case of Callas with her incredible sound. I found myself feeling sad for both of them throughout. This is a great read, with interesting supporting characters and a series of beautiful settings such as Venice, the Greek Islands and the Kennedy Bouvier estates. I felt like one of the jet set while reading and the author added to my knowledge of these women with newly discovered evidence, such as the revelation that Onassis and Callas may have had a son, Omero, who died at birth. Using a depth of background research, the author has created an accessible, enjoyable and enlightening novel about two of the most famous women in the 20th Century.
Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. They include THE SECOND MARRIAGE (titled JACKIE AND MARIA in the US), two bestselling novels about the Romanovs – THE SECRET WIFE and THE LOST DAUGHTER – as well as WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RNA Epic Novel of the Year award, NO PLACE FOR A LADY, shortlisted for a Love Stories award, and ANOTHER WOMAN’S HUSBAND, about links you might not have suspected between Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana.
Gill is also an author of historical non-fiction, including A HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN 50 OBJECTS. As well as writing, she speaks at libraries and literary festivals on subjects ranging from the Titanic to the Romanovs. Gill lives in London, where she is working on her tenth novel, and she swims daily in an outdoor pond.