"Queen of the Underworld"
(Reviewed by Terez Rose APR 30, 2007)
It is Miami, 1959 and Emma Gant has just graduated from college and left her native North Carolina to embark on a career as a journalist with the Miami Star. With the temporary departure of Paul, her married lover—and main reason for taking the Miami position—it’s up to Emma’s job and newfound friends to provide diversion and color in her life. And this they do, in Queen of the Underworld, three-time National Book Award finalist Gail Godwin’s latest winning effort.
Miami, and the Julia Tuttle Hotel—Emma’s temporary home—is teeming with exiled Cubans who’ve left property and wealth behind in the wake of Fidel Castro’s increasingly harsh dictates. Emma meets Alex DeCosta, the Harvard-educated hotel manager who befriends her, as does his flamboyant visiting mother, several-times-married Lídia; who introduces Emma to other notable hotel residents, including Don Waldo Navarro, a distinguished essayist and educator who smuggled his memoirs out of Cuba via his bride’s voluminous taffeta dress. Emma also spends time with Tess, a family friend, whose history includes a Miss Miami title, a socially prominent marriage and an equally prominent fall from grace. The now-divorced Tess maintains a close alliance with her Cuban dentist employer, taking time after hours to help process shipments of “dental equipment,” which the unworldly Emma initially finds puzzling. Tess, in her past notoriety, shares similarities with another local female: Ginevra Snow, nicknamed “Queen of the Underworld,” after her role years earlier as a teenage madam of a high-class whorehouse. Her story and the trial that followed the story’s break, as relayed to Emma by a fellow Star reporter, fuels Emma’s imagination, particularly when she meets Ginevra shortly thereafter, which Godwin renders in her trademark polished prose:
“She had the kind of looks I most admired in other women, that lethal frontage of fine features riding a solid understructure of sex appeal. … I wanted to know her from the inside; I wanted to experience her whole adventure—the motherless childhood with the exploitative grandmother, the abduction by the Mafia nephew, the finishing school for debutantes, the sophisticated mobster uncle, and what it was like to be a madam of nineteen presiding over an elite island whorehouse. In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself. To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross (Georgia) in her circumstances.”
Godwin has won many fans for the way she depicts the thoughts and emotions of a woman on the cusp of discovering herself. In her 1984 novel, The Finishing School (a personal favorite of mine), the euphoria, uncertainty and nameless yearning the young protagonist experiences is visceral and deliciously contagious. We catch occasional glimpses of this kind of emotion and profundity in Emma Gant, yet for the most part, this is the story of a confident, level-headed woman. Emma’s past is not without pain and bitterness—she suffered from the abusive nature of her stepfather, her academic and personal life disrupted by his whims, but she is not one to indulge in self pity. She is a survivor, and, indeed, the entire novel showcases the stories of other survivors: Cuban exiles exchanging their privileged status for a humbler, insecure one in a foreign land; Jews who’ve struggled to overcome pre-WW II prejudices only to fall prey to Mafia pressure; spirited women whose beauty and intelligence serve as both salvation and downfall in an era still blind to women’s emancipation.
Included in the cast of colorful characters are Paul, Emma’s lover, a sophisticated Jewish club and inn owner; his glamorous but unsuspecting wife Bev, who befriends the fashion-disadvantaged Emma; and Paul’s Aunt Stella, a custom perfumier and Holocaust survivor, whose dramatic history is recalled by Paul in loving, haunting detail. “Anything’s possible,” Aunt Stella once told Paul. “After you’ve been as good as dead, you stop making difficulties for yourself in your imagination and just get on with what you’d like to do next.” Sage, somber words that impact both Paul and the reader.
The bustling Miami Star newsroom Emma works in is well portrayed, as are Emma’s fledgling efforts on the job. Despite this and the novel’s vividly drawn characters, however, the story begins to lag midway. Youth brings with it its own languor and self-absorbed emphasis on otherwise mundane accomplishments, but details about Emma getting into her pajamas (“the drip-dry blue ones with white sailboats that Loney and I had bought in the boys’ department at Belk’s…”), then, in bed, mulling over “Emma’s story so far” (a ponderous categorization of the people she has met since arriving in Miami five days earlier, followed by a second category for “once-removed” people that she’d encountered but hadn’t actually met, then a third column for “twice-removed” people, whom she’d heard about but not encountered) have an unfortunate effect of making the reader want to doze off right alongside Emma.
Fortunately the pace picks up as a daily life presents its own conflicts: continued bad news on the Castro front, necessitating covert action by the exiles (at which time Emma learns what “dental equipment” really is); for Paul, once his profitable business is targeted by the mob; for Emma at work, resisting the unspoken suggestion that she gravitate to the “women’s” section of the Star. This male-oriented culture, and indeed the social climate of the era is driven home in an article, printed newspaper-style within the story, which covers the recently-held Mrs. America Pageant—a three-day competition of cooking, cleaning and scrubbing. The winner, a “slender 36-year-old graying wife and mother” confided that “I didn’t do my best” and that “Everyone else was better than I was.” This self-deprecation was followed by the husband’s comment of being stunned and proud, saying, “Who’s the boss? I am—at least sometimes.” Welcome to 1959 America.
A caveat: readers in search of a story with all loose ends tied up by the final page may be frustrated by the story’s somewhat abrupt ending. This style worked for me, giving me the sense that the threads weaving their way through the story are not the biggest story and instead serve to illustrate the flowing, “journey of self-discovery” nature that defines a young person’s first out-of-college job experience. Life flashes by, friends come and go, and new experiences and insights punctuate the way like highway billboards. Prospective readers should not be deterred—Queen of the Underworld is compulsively readable in its nuanced Gail Godwin style. It entertains, educates and enlightens. No, this is not traditional Godwin. But it is a great read that will hopefully draw in more fans for this accomplished writer.
- Amazon readers rating: from 31 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Queen of the Underworld at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Pefectionist (1970)
- Glass People (1972)
- The Odd Woman (1974)
- Dream Children : Stories (1976)
- Violet Clay (1978)
- A Mother and Two Daughters (1982)
- Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983)
- The Finishing School (1984) ---> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
- A Southern Family (1987)
- Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991)
- The Good Husband (1994)
- Evensong (1999)
- Evenings at Five (2003)
- Queen of the Underworld (2006)
- Unfinished Desires (2010)
- Flora (May 2013)
- Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings (2001)
- The Making of a Writer, Journals 1961-1963 (2006)
- The Making of a Writer, Journals 1963-1969 (2011)
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- Official website for Gail Godwin
- Wikipedia page on Gail Godwin
- Author Q & A
- The New York Times page on Gail Godwin
- Reader's Guide for The Finishing School
- Chapter Excerpt from Evensong
- Chapter Excerpt from Evenings at Five
- MostlyFiction.com review of Unfinished Desires
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About the Author:
Gail Godwin was born in Alabama in 1937. when her father was working at a summer job nearby. The following fall, her family moved back to their native North Carolina. Her parents divorced, when she was quite young, after her father deserted the family. She grew up in Asheville, N.C., living with her mother and grandmother. Her mother supported the family working as a junior college instructor, a newspaper reporter, and an author of romance stories for popular magazines. Godwin read extensively as a child and wrote her first story at age nine. Her mother remarried when Godwin was eleven, and the family moved frequently after that. Godwin reunited with her father at her high school graduation and lived with him briefly; he committed suicide while she was in college. Godwin attended Peace Junior College in Raleigh, N.C., then transferred to the University of North Carolina, from which she graduated in 1959 with a BA in journalism.
She began her writing career as a reporter for the Miami Herald in 1959. After one year she moved to London where she worked at the US Travel Service at the US Embassy there. In 1967, she was accepted into the Writers’ Workshop program at the University of Iowa, where she earned an MA in English in 1968 and a PhD in 1971. Her doctoral thesis evolved into her first published novel, The Perfectionists, in 1970.
She has won three National Book Award nominations (The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, A Mother and Two Daughters) a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Along with her longtime companion, Robert Starer, she wrote the libretti for ten musical works, including a chamber opera. After Starer's death in 2001, Godwin wrote her novella, Evenings at Five, what she called her "grief sonata," based on their 30-year relationship.
She has lived in Woodstock, NY since 1976 with her longterm companion, the composer Rober Starer, who died in 2001.