Queen of the Underworld: A Novel Paperback – Jan 30 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In the summer of 1959, plucky North Carolinian Emma Gant escapes overbearing parents to begin her career as a reporter at the Miami Star. Lodged at the colorful Julia Tuttle Hotel (a fictional Florida property named after Miami's real-life founder), Emma meets a group of Cuban families who've recently fled Fidel Castro. Emma spends her days learning the ropes as a reporter and her nights bantering (in broken Spanish) with the eclectic group of exiles. She also arranges rendezvous with her married lover, Paul, an innkeeper largely responsible for her decision to move South. Godwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee, taps into her experiences as a fledgling Florida journalist to render a tale whose ambling, amiable plot is redeemed by a cast of memorable characters. Among them are an arms-smuggling dentist, a diminutive German perfumer, a nefarious reporter with an "overall gleaming effect," and a distinguished academic who flees Cuba with his memoir stitched into his wife's wedding dress. Topping the list of provocative personalities is Ginevra Brown, aka the Queen of the Underworld, a former Miami madam once betrothed to a mobster. Readers who can't get enough Godwin can snap up the first installment of her two-volume memoir, The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961–1963, also due out this month (and reviewed on p. 44). (Jan.)
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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
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
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Emma joins the Star's reporting staff at a tumultuous time, shortly after Fidel Castro enacted his First Agrarian Reform. Living in a hotel run by Cuban émigrés for Cuban émigrés makes the upheavals of Castro's revolución more than just news to Emma. Placing her in this context, the author seems to be drawing a comparison between Emma's situation and that of the Cubans. As Emma is struggling to figure out her place in the world and gauge her future success, so are her newly exiled neighbors.
The more one reads into the life history of the author, the more Queen of the Underworld begins to seem like a semi-autobiographical novel. Godwin herself graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1959 and spent a year on the staff of the Miami Herald before embarking on the world travels that sparked her literary career.
What is most curious about the novel is that it takes place over such a short period of time. The story of Emma's coming into her own, Queen of the Underworld is a window into what seems to be a key moment in Emma's development, one that may affect her entire career. Godwin, however, manages to squeeze an unbelievable amount of action into less than two weeks. Emma's life during the span of the novel is so full, it is almost surreal; as she herself recounts, "in one week and three days, I met a gangster walking a dog, sat behind a notorious boss at a funeral, became friends with [an] ex-madame [...], and helped two Cubans smuggle arms out of Florida" (331), and that's not even the half of it.
By contrast, the novel's ending is unsatisfying and somewhat abrupt. While Emma fantasizes about writing a novel, there is nothing (besides Godwin's own history) that gives any indication that Emma will become a novelist. The narrative ends with both Emma and the reader waiting on her future, filled with unanswered questions.
Godwin's characterization, however, is the novel's saving grace. Emma is amazingly sympathetic despite her naïveté and the fact that she seems to have no compunction about sleeping with another woman's husband (although her sexual relationships do seem to be at odds with her history of sexual abuse). More significantly, Queen of the Underworld is full of finely drawn secondary characters. One such character is Don Waldo Navarro, a prominent academic who fled Cuba with his memoirs sewn into his wife's skirt. A minor character, who could have easily been shunted aside after his grand entrance, Don Waldo is made real in Godwin's attention to detail: he swims breaststroke in the hotel pool "in billowing maroon trunks" (260) with "his leonine head erect" (259) and has the ability of seamlessly incorporating a nine-year-old Spanish-speaking girl into a English-language conversation: "the great educator's consecutive translations into Spanish on Luisa's behalf bore no trace of pedagogy. Don Waldo made it seem merely as though he suddenly chose to complete the rest of his discourse in another tongue" (272).
Godwin has written a number of other novels including The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and A Mother and Two Daughters, each of which was nominated for the National Book Award. A career author, she published her first novel in 1970. Her papers are archived in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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.