Summary and book reviews of Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin

Queen of the Underworld

By Gail Godwin

Queen of the Underworld
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2007,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

1

Now I had graduated on this bright June Saturday in 1959 and few were the obstacles left between me and my getaway train to Miami—obstacles that nevertheless must be cunningly surmounted.

"Emma, you ride in front with Earl," said Mother, as expected. "I'll sit in back and reminisce a little more about my time here in Paradise."

"Oh?" challenged Earl. "What does that make the rest of your life, then, a comedown?"

"The rest of my life is still in progress," Mother lightly countered, making room for herself among my college leftovers that were going back to the mountains with them. "Ask me again in thirty or forty years."

We began the winding descent out of Chapel Hill as, seven years earlier, the three of us, with my mother's new husband at the wheel, had begun ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

This is a novel to approach with caution. If you have enjoyed other works by Godwin you might well enjoy this ... however, if you are reading her for the first time you will likely be better served starting with one of her earlier novels which include A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay and Father Melancholy's Daughter.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Ron Charles

[Godwin's] most autobiographical novel demonstrates a severe lack of authorial distance. [The] novel, which suffers from a deadening lack of psychological insight and a maddening unwillingness to allow events to resonate as they could. .... One can't help but wonder wistfully how Emma's story might have been handled by Henry James -- or even the novelist Gail Godwin.

The New Yorker

The twelfth novel by Godwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee best known for her sharp women characters and Southern sensibility, is a disappointing attempt to recycle in fiction the youthful passion, determination, and self-doubt that she has written about with vitality in recently published journals.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

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.

Author Blurb Joyce Carol Oates
Queen of the Underworld will be a delight to [Godwin's] many admirers for whom The Odd Woman and A Mother and Two Daughters remain luminous in memory, like old, dear friends. Here is the irresistibly readable Godwin voice, tender and sardonic, warmly romantic and unflinchingly funny. Godwin's new heroine Emma Gant is as alive on the page as any 'fictitious' character has a right to be and when Emma takes leave of us, as she does in the startling ending of Queen of the Underworld, we miss her, and can't help but hope that her adventures in Florida at the time of the Cuban Revolution will be continued.

Author Blurb Kurt Vonnegut
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.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Strout
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.

Reader Reviews
Nuala Morocco

Queen of the Underworld
I start every novel with great anticipation of the places and the people I will get to know once the reading gets underway. I was pleasantly intrigued by the main character, and interested in the journey and adventure she was on. Then right when I ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Gail Godwin published her first novel, The Perfectionists, in about 1970; since then she's produced 12 novels and a number of short stories, plus her first volume of memoirs. Her second, and I believe final, volume of memoirs will be published next year and will cover the years 1963-1970. She is also working on a novel, The Red Nun.

In an interview, Godwin reveals some of the experiences that inspired Queen of the Underworld, and also explains why she didn't feel compelled to do any field research while writing it:
"During the two years I was writing Queen of the Underworld, I could hardly wait to get to my computer. I loved being 22 and hungry again, with a 22-inch waistline, so desperate to succeed and equally ...

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