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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
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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Customer Reviews

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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
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: 2.7 out of 5 stars  34 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
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 15 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
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Torture... Oct. 15 2009
By Cynthia K. Robertson - Published on Amazon.com
There aren't too many books that I've read that I've disliked from start to finish. I'm reluctant to give up on a book--sometimes stories that start out slow come to a roaring finish. I was hoping for something similar when I started Gail Godwin's Queen of the Underworld. Was I mistaken! This book was absolute torture, and I hate admitting this as I generally enjoy Gail Godwin. Her Father Melancholy's Daughter is one of my very favorite books.

Emma Gant is fresh out of college when she gets a job as a reporter for the Miami Star. Fidel Castro has just taken over Cuba and Miami is being overrun by prominent Cubans who have lost everything to the Castro regime. This novel bounces around--characters appear and then disappear, loose ends dangle everywhere, the title character (The Queen of the Underworld) is AWOL, there isn't a single likable character and the entire book is just too painful for words.

What was even more depressing than The Queen of the Underworld is that it took me almost two weeks to read it. I'm very embarrassed for Gail Godwin and I can't understand why her editors would allow this book to be published. No wonder I'm seeing it for sale in our local dollar stores.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars what a disappointment!! Aug. 11 2007
By Frances G. Sonne - Published on Amazon.com
Many other reviews summarize the book so I won't repeat everything here. Suffice it to say - it was very disappointing! I kept waiting for something to happen and when the book finally seemed to get really interesting, it ended - just ended - with no resolution, finality, anything!! A waste of time - could have been so much more. Don't buy it - borrow it or pass altogether. If I like a book, I keep it - this one I will sell to a used book store or donate to Goodwill.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Phoned In Feb. 18 2008
By A. Lovett - Published on Amazon.com
What a lot of interesting secondary characters! Unfortunately, the main character is pretty much annoying. An abusive stepfather gains our sympahy for the plucky heroine at first, but she's so clueless and chirpy--wow, look at me, folks, I'm having an affair! --we lose the sympathy fast and just keep waiting to see if she stumbles.

In the audio version, the narrator does a pretty good job with the various accents, but slips out of Southern a few times.
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