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Queen of the Underworldby Gail Godwin
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 10, 2005). (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"If we're finally done beating up on memoirists who fictionalize their lives too much, let's start complaining about novelists who don't fictionalize theirs enough. Gail Godwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee, has portrayed plenty of lives besides her own, but this winter, with the publication of the first volume of her journals, 'The Making of a Writer: 1961-63,' also comes 'Queen of the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Underworld,' her most autobiographical novel, which demonstrates a severe lack of authorial distance. It tells the story of Emma Gant, an ambitious young woman who leaves home after graduating from the University of North Carolina with a journalism degree to take a job on the Miami Star in 1959. People in the know can match up some of the other characters to real-life counterparts on the Miami Herald, such as Al Neuharth, who appears here as a slick editor nicknamed Lucifer, years before he founded USA Today. And yet 'Queen of the Underworld' isn't a juicy roman a clef. There's no score-settling here. Like the journals of an ambitious young person, it's self-absorbed, rambling and dull, despite a number of fascinating side characters and the makings of a fantastic plot spread over 10 action-packed days: Emma comes down to Miami to escape her abusive stepfather and be with her secret lover, a married man (20 years older) who owns a beachfront club that the mob is targeting. An old family friend takes Emma under her wing and enlists her in arms smuggling. The hotel where she's staying is filling up with wealthy Cubans waiting for Castro to fall. (Now there's a hotel bill!) And when a hurricane sweeps through the city, Emma meets a suicidal woman — the 'Queen of the Underworld' — who once managed a notorious whorehouse. But nothing really ruffles Emma's beautiful hair except the thought that one of her little feature stories might get trimmed by the copy desk. Choosing to write this most personal story in the first person was Godwin's first mistake; leaving her sense of irony locked in a drawer was her second. Emma may be a promising journalist — she and others tell us often enough — but again and again it's clear that she's not up to the task of narrating this novel, which suffers from a deadening lack of psychological insight and a maddening unwillingness to allow events to resonate as they could. We have here, for instance, various kinds of revolution — personal, cultural, sexual and political — but Godwin fails to connect them in any meaningful way. The 'Queen of the Underworld' cries out for a storyteller who can treat her own youthful vanities with some illuminating distance, maybe even a little humor. 'I made up my mind,' she tells us early in the novel, 'to adopt this concept of 'Emma-ness' as a talisman against those loss-of-self times that flattened me.' But in fact, it's the flatness of her perspective that drains the passion from her affair, the terror from the Cuban revolution and the comedy from her ridiculous feelings of envy toward anyone with more responsibility at the paper. Sneaking into the newsroom library to read her editor's clippings, she says, 'My jealousy animal reared up dangerously on its hind legs when I laid my hands on Norbright's corpus: six stuffed envelopes in as many years. If I was still here in six years, how many would I have? I would be twenty-eight. Would I have a novel published by then? Would I have won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting? Oh God, so much to get done. ... The positive thing about my envy of others was that it could be depended upon to rev up my incentive motor. I sat up straighter at (the) Remington, pounded its keys harder, and mentally steamrollered over my picky inner critic.' Rise up, inner critic, we need your picking! The trouble isn't that Emma is naive and vain (though she is), it's that her clunky, pedestrian voice — all revved up — steamrolls over any potential insights about what's happening to her. Godwin hasn't supplied anyone in the novel to place Emma's ordinary human foibles in an interesting context; nor has she spiked Emma's voice with any dramatic irony to imply some larger or more mature perspective, which would make all the difference between analyzing a self-absorbed person and being stuck with one. Toward the very end of the story, Emma receives a bureau assignment that she fears will retard her skyrocketing career. Pouting in her room, she wishes she had a television to watch Ingrid Bergman in 'The Turn of the Screw.' Could that allusion to the Master's tale about an overconfident young woman be intentional? One can't help but wonder wistfully how Emma's story might have been handled by Henry James — or even the novelist Gail Godwin. Ron Charles is a senior editor for The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"It takes courage for an author to lay bare the grandiosity and recklessness of her young self, even from a remove of so many years...early on, Godwin told a friend that if she could have one wish, it would be 'to get it all down.' In Queen of the Underworld, she has lightly cloaked a few days in fantasy." New York Times
"Here is the irresistibly readable Godwin voice, tender and sardonic, warmly romantic and unflinchingly funny." Joyce Carol Oates
"Gail Godwin's excellent new novel seems to me to be a muted tragedy about a soul inside the body of a modern woman navigating through the terra incognita of modern times." Kurt Vonnegut
"Here is a wonderfully engaging story that explores the growth of a young woman beginning her career as a journalist. The inner workings of Emma' s life are gracefully presented and marvelously mingled with the workings of the outer world; the combination provides a universe in which the reader is glad to reside." Elizabeth Strout
"Godwin writes great dialogue. She can give you a complete person in a single speech or reel off chatty conversations that go on for pages." Seattle Times
"[A] good read with the bonus of an enlightening slice of history." San Antonio Express-News
About the Author
Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels.
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