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Queen of the Underworld: A Novel [Paperback]

Gail Godwin
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 30 2007 Reader's Circle
Here at last is the eagerly awaited new novel from New York Times bestselling author Gail Godwin. Queen of the Underworld is sweeping and sultry literary fiction, featuring a memorable young heroine and engaging characters whose intimate dramas interconnect with hers.
In the summer of 1959, as Castro clamps down on Cuba and its first wave of exiles flees to the States to wait out what they hope to be his short-lived reign, Emma Gant, fresh out of college, begins her career as a reporter. Her fierce ambition and belief in herself are set against the stories swirling around her, both at the newspaper office and in her downtown Miami hotel, which is filling up with refugees.
Emma’s avid curiosity about life thrives amid the tropical charms and intrigues of Miami. While toiling at the news desk, she plans the fictional stories she will write in her spare time. She spends her nights getting to know the Cuban families in her hotel–and rendezvousing with her married lover, Paul Nightingale, owner of a private Miami Beach club.
As Emma experiences the historical events enveloping the city, she trains her perceptive eye on the people surrounding her: a newfound Cuban friend who joins the covert anti-Castro training brigade, a gambling racketeer who poses a grave threat to Paul, and a former madam, still in her twenties, who becomes both Emma’s obsession and her alter ego. Emma’s life, like a complicated dance that keeps sweeping her off her balance, is suddenly filled with divided loyalties, shady dealings, romantic and professional setbacks, and, throughout, her adamant determination to avoid “usurpation” by others and remain the protagonist of her own quest.


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From Publishers Weekly

Though our protagonist's Southern accent varies in thickness from one chapter to another, Zimbalist generally gives a professional reading of this scantily clad autobiographical novel set in 1950s Miami. Recent college grad Emma Gant escapes her nasty stepfather and follows her married lover to Miami, where she begins work on the Miami Star. Here we encounter a host of eccentrics: the miserable Queen of the Underworld (a serially suicidal one-time madam) the married boyfriend and his wife; a Jewish Mafioso;, a personalized perfume scent entrepreneur; and Cuban exiles exporting munitions as "dental equipment." Zimbalist handles Spanish well, distinguishing between the anti-Castro Cubans and Emma's own awkward attempts at the language. But there are so many oddball characters that we are sometimes aware of her straining to give each a distinctive voice and flavor. Despite her efforts, the plot is too rambling and the characters too disparate to finally gel into a novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Emma Gant is smart, regal, and ambitious. In spite of a rough childhood, she has graduated from the journalism program at Chapel Hill, and scored a plum job at the Miami Star. It's 1959 and although "career women" are highly suspect, Emma, as confident about her womanly allure as she is about her journalistic skills, is set to take Miami by storm. She has some stiff competition, however, from an actual hurricane and a tidal wave of upper-class Cuban refugees fleeing Castro. But the hurricane allows her to meet someone she is intensely curious about, the Queen of the Underworld, a "Georgia fruit-stand beauty" turned Mafia darling and madam. And thanks to Tess, a close friend of her mother's who works with a Cuban dentist on a secret mission far more dramatic than filling cavities, Emma finds herself surrounded by a group of lively and intriguing Cubans. Emma also has a secret mission, a love affair with a prominent married man. Shrewdly observant, Godwin's goddess-in-the-making quickly learns how to go with the flow in a radiant bildungsroman that is kin to Ward Just's An Unfinished Season (2004), albeit far more blithe and optimistic. A master stylist with a dozen novels to her credit, Godwin has never written more voluptuously, nor had as much fun with a character or setting. Readers will want to search for the autobiographical inspiration for this ravishing novel in Godwin's early journals, which are due out soon. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars VOICE PERFORMANCE IS PURE PLEASURE - ENJOY! Jan. 21 2006
By Gail Cooke TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
While many recognize the name of actress Stephanie Zimbalist, few may know that she studied acting and singing at Julliard. This training stands her in good stead, whether she's appearing on stage, TV, in film, or reading audio books. Perhaps best known for her role of a smart, stylish sleuth on TV's Remington Steele opposite Pierce Brosnan, Zimbalist has a history of playing strong, intelligent women and she does it again in her narration of "Queen of the Underworld."
The setting is Miami in 1959, the time of the Cuban Revolution. Emma Gant, a very recent graduate of the university at chapel Hill, has arrived after accepting a job as a reporter with the Miami Star (Not the Charlotte Observer, much to her step-father's dismay). She's convinced she's on her way up - she'll become a famous novelist and being a reporter will buy bread, butter and blouses until that time comes.
Keeping her company during her ascent is Paul Nightingale, owner of a private club and her married lover. Peopling her new life are a gaggle of Cuban refugees as well as the comely woman of the title, a madam with a Mafia beau.
As fans of Gail Godwin know one of her greatest attributes is characterization and she has a ball with the group she brings to "Queen of the Underworld." She has spun an engaging story (perhaps in part based on her years as a young journalist in Florida?). Stephanie Zimbalist is delicious as she eases from the Spanish speaking Cubans to the eyes-wide-open learning every minute Emma.
Pure pleasure - enjoy!
- Gail Cooke
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4.0 out of 5 stars Finding Oneself in a Time of Chaos Oct. 16 2005
Format:Hardcover
Emma Gant, fresh out of college, has set her feet firmly on her own path. Leaving behind an impossible family situation, she charts her course for Miami to take her place on the staff of the Miami Star and by the side of her married lover.
It is the summer of 1959, Cuba has been betrayed by Castro and floods of Cuban refugees are arriving in Miami. Emma is quickly enmeshed in the lives of those sharing her hotel. Her predetermined plans for her life quickly falter as different views on life make inroads into her consciousness. With her lively intelligence and curiosity, Emma is determined to keep control of her own situation.
Gail Godwin helps the reader experience Emma's search for her essential "Emma-ness", set against a background of chaos, both historical and physical. The concept of "usurpation" is one on which Emma spends a great deal of time. All around her is a physical reminder of this, displaced Cubans now calling the hotel home. However, Godwin draws out this theme in Emma's work, relationships and in the relationship with her married lover.
The use of language in this work also operates on several levels. Emma's neophyte status in the world means that, despite her desire to be seen as a woman of the world, she is continually faced with concepts, history and words she does not know. Daily she is reminded that she can't understand the spoken word around her in her new home and wonders how she would react if she not only had to face a new life but also one where she could not speak the language. Godwin has plotted her story in a way to show the similarities between Emma's life and those of the Cubans around her, using this mirror to reflect to Emma how she is both the usurper and the usurped.
Emma is an engaging heroine drawn vividly to life by an author of great talent. The passion and questioning exhibited by Emma mesmerizes the reader, drawing you into a life beginning surrounded by utter change.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 2.6 out of 5 stars  37 reviews
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars frustrating Feb. 7 2006
By E. M. Bristol - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book starts out with everything going for it: intriguing characters, an intimate look at the underbelly of Miami in the

1950's. But somewhere in there, Godwin seems to have completely bypassed the plot. She gets the nitty gritty of a newsroom right, and then does very little with it.

There was, I felt, an element of "Mary Sue-ishness" in it. Except for the evil stepfather (a minor character without the rich extensive history given most of the others), everyone seems to be standing in line to tell Emma (protagonist) how clever, pretty, stylish, bold, talented writer/reporter, she is. This got annoying. Except for a streak of perfectionism, she was perfect! That makes for a boring heroine no matter how "grirry" her job.

Also, the title is misleading. Emma, through sheer coincidence, manages to make contact with a young woman who gained notoriety by running a charm school for call girls. I expected much more of her story, which was dropped for pages before being brought up again at the end. This was frustrating because the "Queen of the Underworld" was a truly fascinating character, even more so than the heroine.

In addition for someone who has been extensively physically and sexually abused as a girl, Emma's adult relationships were amazingly stress free and wholesome. How can she possibly trust men as partners wholeheartedly after being beaten and raped by her stepfather? This rang false.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lackluster, trite and disappointing Jan. 2 2007
By Susan L. Flynn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Like many of the others who have reviewed this book, I am a longtime fan of Gail Godwin and found most of her other books rich, complex and rewarding. I was pleased to see she had a new book out.

After completing around 100 pages, I was still waiting for anything to happen, other than the introduction of characters, the writing of a few newspaper stories by Emma, and several meals. I determined that I would finish the book regardless, and it was a disappointment that by the end, I still felt that essentially very little of interest had happened.

Many plot threads were introduced and never resolved. These dead ends were distracting, because I had noted them and imbued them with future significance, which never happened. For example, Emma's aunt Tess is involved in a plot with her employer, a Cuban expatriate dentist, to smuggle weapons into Cuba. We never learn how either of them became involved in this, what eventually happened with the weapons, or the significance of their involvement. The plot, if you can call it that, was thin and aimless. With such rich potential - the Miami of the late 50s, during the early days of Castro's regime - the plot could have been incredibly meaningful and complex - but unfortunately it's almost as if we see it through the eyes of an uninformed person who doesn't understand what she is seeing.

Most of the characters are rather flat and undeveloped. I hate to say it, but they seem like caricatures. An example is Lydia, the Cuban mother of Alex, the manager of Emma's hotel. From statements that Alex makes, we realize that he feels manipulated and used by his mother, but this is never explored or explained. She's just a self-centered fashion plate who likes to throw parties. The only really well-developed character is Emma, and I found myself disliking her more and more as she was fleshed out. I too realized that this book must be autobiographical, and wondered to myself about a character who accepts the gifts and kindnesses of her lover Paul's wife, while carrying on an affair with her husband behind her back. With apparently no guilty conscience! The book also implies that she accepts gifts and money from Paul too. It happens, but it's not endearing, and doesn't seem to cause Emma any remorse.

Every author has a right to a clunker or two, and the usually reliable Gail Godwin must have had a bad year with this one. I gave it two stars because her writing is still enjoyable and there are moments when it shines, usually when she is describing something. She can evoke a time and place, although I don't think she did justice to her setting, other than the Julia Tuttle Hotel, which was nicely described.
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Education Of A Young Woman March 5 2006
By H. F. Corbin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Gail Godwin's latest novel is all about Emma Gant, recently graduated from a university in North Carolina, and embarking on her first real job as a beginning reporter (she writes obits) for the MIAMI STAR. Apparently we are to think of both Jane Austin's EMMA and Thomas Wolfe's LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL when we meet this character. She has all the enthusiasm and naivete we expect from a young woman who celebrates her twenty-second birthday during the week or so that this novel spans in 1959. A bourbon and beer girl, she hardly knows the difference between a yarmulke and a guayabera, is subject to the many pitfalls that a novice makes on any beginning career and of course encounters the sexism at the newspaper we would expect from males of that era. She sometimes asks the wrong questions and is provincial when it comes to world events. She works hard, however, at being sophisticated and hopes that not many people in the Julia Tuttle, the hotel where she is staying, will witness her first visit to the hotel pool since neither her swimsuit nor her Bass Weejuns are what a fashionable young woman would be wearing. Naive she may be, but not too naive to be having an affair with Paul Nightingale, a Jewish restaurant owner twenty years her senior, and not above taking money from his unsuspecting wife to purchase an expensivse pair of pumps from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Godwin makes both Emma and the many characters she encounters, many of them refugees who have fled Castro's Cuba, as well as the City of Miami itself, come alive in vivid detail: Paul's Aunt Stella, a survivor of the Holocaust and a designer of custom perfumes; Alex de Costa, a Cuban American hotel employee who has a mild crush on Emma; his many-times-married mother Lidia; Emma's mother's friend Tess; the newspaper employees et al. Most importantly, however, is the suicidal character Ginevra Snow, the "queen of the underworld," a retired madam now married to a psychiatrist, with whom Emma becomes obsessed. From key lime pie to Howard Johnson's to the humidity, Godwin gets the city just right as well.

With language that only a first class writer is capable of, Godwin guides the reader through the education of this young woman with humor and flair. Emma quickly learns some lessons she didn't count on-- about her friend Tess and her lover Paul in particular. Godwin, however, leaves the reader wanting more, as we do not know how successful Emma will be on her new outpost away from the downtown Miami location of the paper, what will be the outcome of her complicated relationship with Paul, and will she ever write about the Queen of the Underworld?

If you believe that a good fiction writer should first and foremost tell a good story, than Ms. Godwin meets all the requirements. Secondly she has created a person all of us can identify with as practically everyone under the sun has had to live through the early days of being on his or her own for the very first time.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars How did this dreck get published? July 6 2006
By Ilene Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Once again, a book gets published only because it's written by someone who's been published in the past, with no regard as to whether the book is good or not.

This book is a definite NOT!

In 1959, no woman directly out of college would have been hired as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. I was a journalism major in the mid-60s and the best I could hope for was a job on the society pages on a small paper or copy editor (if I were lucky) on a large one. All the job offers I received were for secretarial positions with the possibility of free lancing and maybe "working my way up." (And, yes, I had experience, had been published in Sunday magazine supplements, worked on several college publications, and done co-op work on a local weekly paper.) I went to grad school instead in an unrelated field.

But I decided to suspend my disbelief and plod on. I'm sorry I did. Nothing else about the plot was in any way realistic.

And then everything just stopped. There were no resolutions to any of the plot lines. Why was the book called "Queen of the Underworld" when she's a minor character barely mentioned? Why was the main character crazy about her married lover, but then not upset when he was no longer coming to Miami? Did the Cubans she helped leave the US get arrested in Cuba? The book ended and I kept checking to make sure the last 50-100 pages (it would have taken that many to have resolved all the subplots) hadn't been torn out.

I'm not sure if I'm more frustrated, disappointed, or angry. I'm glad that I borrowed the book from the library and didn't waste money on it.

Blech.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Did I miss something? April 17 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I always have loved Gail Godwin's books, but I think I missed something here. I continued reading and waiting for the story, but it never happened. I gave it one star, because, even though I don't ususally waste time on books that don't draw me in, I did finish it, because I knew Godwin's books and thought there had to be something more to the story. The main character was Marjorie Morningstar without the soul. I second the reviewer who dislikes reviewers who tell the whole story; stop it, please!
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