Queen of the Underworld

( 13 )

Overview

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...
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Overview

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for Queen of the Underworld

“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.”
–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

From the Hardcover edition.

Liesl Schillinger
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.
—The New York Times
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. Emma Gant, Godwin’s alter ego, is an eager young reporter just out of college, who lands at a Miami paper in 1959 and makes her way through a landscape populated by scheming journalists, Jewish mobsters, Cuban exiles, a schmalzy ex-beauty queen, and the former madam of an “elite island whorehouse.” Unfortunately, Emma’s flat first-person narration blanches even such an eclectic cast of characters of its native color.
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. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 10, 2005). (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Ambitious Emma Gant launches her career at the Miami Star just as refugees from Castro's Cuba flood the city. With a six-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345483195
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/30/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,381,253
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961—1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has written libretti for ten musical works with the composer Robert Starer. Visit the author’s website at www.gailgodwin.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

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 another descent into a new life. Only this time, they would be dropping me off within the hour at the Seaboard Station in Raleigh. My journey as part of this family unit would soon be at an end. Happily, my train to Miami left at one fifteen, so a farewell lunch had been out of the question, a circumstance diminishing that much further the chance of a last-minute blowup with Earl.

But still I was on my guard, for already he was making those engorged throat noises that preceded a sermon. I did not dare glance back at Mother for fear of catching her eye. An exchanged look of sympathy or, God forbid, a mutual smirk might still explode everything sky-high, as it had done plenty of times before. My job was to look respectfully attentive without rising to his bait. I folded my hands in my lap and faced front, focusing on the road ahead. Windows on both sides were open to let in the breeze, and the capricious little whomp-whomps of hot air provided a divertimento against Earl’s opening sally and helped me keep my own counsel.

Sacrifices had been made. If I would ever stop to think about other people. Empathy and gratitude not my strong suits. Had never known what it was to apply myself on a daily basis. Hadn’t been required of me. Had been raised to think that the world revolved around me and that I could coast along without making much of an effort. Not completely my fault. Had been indulged too much for my own good by teachers as well as family. But now I was going into the real world where I would have to knuckle under and deliver the goods like everybody else.

“Though why you should choose to go off half-cocked to a place like Miami remains a mystery to your mother and me. Your dean told us the Charlotte Observer wanted you, but he said you’d had your heart set on Miami ever since you went down for that interview at Christmas. I said, well, we were the last to know she went to Miami for Christmas. She told us she was staying in the dorm to catch up on her work. We didn’t learn the truth till February.”

Damn and blast you, I thought. You have a single conversation with my dean, who adores me, and you make me out a liar.

“I didn’t want to say anything to anyone until I knew I had the job,” I cautiously replied.

“I told the dean, she doesn’t even know anybody in Miami—”

I don’t know anybody in Charlotte, either, I refrained from saying.

“She knows Tess,” put in Mother from the backseat. Tess was her old college roommate from Converse. “Tess will be meeting her train tomorrow morning.”

“So why didn’t she stay with Tess at Christmas, when she went down for that interview?” His voice had edged up a decibel.

“Well, I guess she wanted to stay with someone else at Christmas,” Mother neutrally suggested.

Of course I had told them, after the fact, with whom I’d stayed. Or rather I had presented an acceptable configuration of the way in which this family I had worked for last summer had offered me hospitality. Not that any configuration of the Nightingales would ever be acceptable to Earl.

“Well, I guess there’s just no accounting for some people’s taste, but to move down there to be with that tribe . . .” Menacing pause before the refrain: “When her dean said the Charlotte Observer would have taken her.”

The voice rolled on, but so, I congratulated myself, did the car. Every mile we achieved was one mile nearer to my release. We had not veered off the road or had a flat tire and nobody had backhanded me to start a black eye for my first day at work.

Think of it as a scene early in a novel, I told myself: The stepfather picks one last fight with the daughter who has not appreciated him. The mother in the backseat, wedged among her daughter’s boxes, knees tucked under her like a college girl, is forgiving of the wild little breezes that mess up her hairdo because they mute his voice. There will be plenty more of it to listen to on their long drive back to the mountains. Whose novel was this going to be? Not the stepfather’s; the writer might never grow the empathy for that one. Not the mother’s, either, though it catches in the daughter’s throat to see the youthful way the older woman is clasping her knees, wrapped in her own memories of Chapel Hill, when she still expected to get everything she wanted. If it was going to be the daughter’s, there would be some choked-back sobs in the mother’s embrace at the train station, one last stoic offering of the daughter’s mouth for the imposition of the stepfather’s kiss, and then they would be gone on the next page.

When, as a last-minute taunt, Earl, in the act of setting down my suitcases inside my roomette, asked if I thought I had “money to burn” for this exclusive little compartment with its own washroom and pull-down bed, I suppressed the perfect comeback that it was indeed a “burnt offering” of my graduation monies to thank the gods for my escape from him. At long last I had learned that it was never too late for a black eye when saying goodbye to certain people.

Alone in my luxury cubicle, I relaxed for the first time in months, allowing the train’s diesel engine to take over the job of getting me to my destination. Woods pinked with afternoon June light alternated with tobacco fields and tin-roofed drying barns. As we shot through a dreary little hamlet, a character offered herself for my perusal: a girl born and raised in this flyblown place who had dreams of going somewhere and one day wakes up on her deathbed, a forgotten old maid who has never left town, and hears this very train hurtle by. She feels the diesel cry in the marrow of her bones and in her last conscious moment believes she is aboard. She savors all the sweetness of having gotten out, and she expires with a rapturous smile on her face for no one to see but the undertaker.

Could such a woman still exist in the late nineteen-fifties, even in rural North Carolina? Why not? Maybe I would write this existential pastorale with its O. Henry–ish ending in the evenings when I got home from my newspaper job. It was the sort of thing that might get me published in a literary quarterly, especially one of the Southern ones, which abounded in stories about trains passing and nothing much ever happening at home. My plan was to become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then, in the evening and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side, if I could manage both.

I began to lower myself into the environs of the old maid’s unlived life until I started feeling queasy. Despite my desperate desire to be published, I knew this was a warning signal to get out of there. Letting yourself be trapped in the wrong story was another way of succumbing to usurpation. Goodbye, old girl, someone else will have to tell your boring tale.

I took first call for the dining car and sat down to a spotless white tablecloth and a red rosebud in a silver vase. Perfect icons for my new beginning. Like an antidote to my ditched character back in the roomette, a smart, suntanned woman in an Army officer’s uniform slowly materialized through the haze of my nearsightedness. Her gaze lit on me, she murmured something to the waiter, and the next thing I knew she was asking if she might join me.

“Please do.” I heard myself switching into my well-brought-up mode, even though I had been counting on dining alone and savoring my getaway some more.

Her brass name tag read “Major E. J. Marjac.” She introduced herself as Erna Marjac. When I said “Emma Gant,” she remarked on the similarity of our first names, which would have annoyed me had she not had such a warm smile (and beautiful teeth in the bargain) and had she not looked so straightforwardly charmed by the prospect of having dinner with me. By the time she had ordered from the menu, without the usual female shilly-shallying, I knew I envied her self-command and I resolved to use this opportunity to further my development.

She asked where I was headed, and I said I was going to Miami to be a reporter on the Miami Star.

“Really? You seem so young. I thought you were a student.”

“I was until noon today. I just graduated from the university at Chapel Hill.”

She laughed, exposing the beautiful teeth again. “You aren’t wasting any time, are you? We ought to celebrate. May I treat you to some wine, Emma?”

“Thank you, that would be nice.”

Major Marjac signaled the waiter. “What would you like?”

“Oh, whatever you’re ordering will be fine.” Having grown up in beer-and-bourbon land, I hadn’t a clue.

“Well, since we’re both having red meat, a half bottle of this Côte du Rhône will go down well. If we’d chosen the chicken, I would have suggested the Blue Nun.”

My first lesson in wines.

She told me she’d just completed a very successful recruiting tour and was heading for some R & R with a friend in Pensacola before reporting back to duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

“What do you do on a recruiting tour?”

“I show a film about the opportunities the Army offers to women today and then I have interviews the rest of the day. I’m very good at assessing character and signing up the best ones, but this time I broke my own record. Thirty-seven young women from fifteen states will be reporting for duty at Fort McClellan by the end of the month.”

I might have been number thirty-eight, I thought, had I not had my hiring letter from the managing editor of the Miami Star tucked in my purse. But then, of course, I wouldn’t have been on this train.

Major Marjac’s character-assessing gaze gave me a stamp of approval. “You’re fortunate, Emma, you started ahead of the game. But for many young women, we offer the only hope of independence.”

Over wine and dinner she told me stuff about code breaking and weaponry, and about the physical ordeals the new recruits would undergo: gas chambers and such. I strained hard to retain everything in case I decided at some future point to write a story about a girl in her last year of high school, desperate to escape her circumstances: she passes this window with a sign, army recruiting women today, and inside is handsome Major Marjac with her welcoming smile.

When we said goodbye—she would be getting off at Jacksonville before dawn—the Major gave me her card.

“Slip this into your wallet, Emma. If things don’t meet your expectations at the Star, drop me a line. With your college degree you could go straight into officers’ training.”

I asked the porter to make up my roomette for sleeping and was in bed before dark, swaying with the train’s motion, mellow from Major Marjac’s Côte du Rhône. When I was in my pajamas, I raised the shade again so I could get the maximum benefit from the experience, lying straight as a mummy in my little coffin-bed of rebirth, hurtling through one town after another where people steeped like old tea bags in their humdrum lives, speeding farther away by the minute from Earl-dom and all the other bottlenecks I had narrowly squeezed through.

It both gratified and goaded me that I had come across to an observant recruiter as one of those sleek, fortunate ones who “started ahead of the game.” Wasn’t that the image that I had cultivated? Yet, when so much lay hidden, I got no credit for my struggle, did I? When Major Marjac had proudly confided, “Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way,” I couldn’t help inventorying my own arsenal to date, the weapons best suited to my personality under duress: guile, subter-fuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their own purposes again.

“Usurp” had become my adversarial verb of choice ever since I had seized upon it from a History of Tudor England course to trounce my archenemy, the dean of women, in my Daily Tar Heel column. (“With her latest Victorian edict, Dean Carmody has, quite simply, usurped the rights of every Carolina coed.”) After that column, perfect strangers would call out familiarly as I crossed the campus: “Hey, Emma! Any-body been usurping you lately?” I delighted in the powers of the Fourth Estate. My twice-weekly column, “Carolina Carousel,” carried a mug shot of me with flying hair, cagey side glance, and my best don’t-mess-with-me smirk.

And the more I meditated on it, the more the “usurp” word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces. My soon-to-be twenty-two years on this earth had been an obstacle course mined with potential or actual usurpers.

Since day one, it seemed, I had been confronted by them in one form or another. After my alcoholic father crashed his car fatally into a tree on the day of my birth, Mother’s Alabama cousin, a childless woman married to a rich man, tried to annex me. The offer included my widowed mother, but my grandmother Loney was not part of the package—the cousin thought Loney was “too undemonstrative”—and so Mother had to decline.

Next came a string of suitors who were willing to take on a little girl to get the attractive, sexy mother, but not willing to take on the grandmother, so once again I was spared. Next came World War II, four years during which my mother’s job as a reporter on the Mountain City Citizen sufficiently engaged her libido. She covered the Veterans Hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers straight from the battlefront, interviewed visiting celebrities, reviewed books, and even contributed the occasional seasonal poem. But then the war ended and the men came home and wanted their jobs back and three of them wanted my mother. She chose the one my grandmother and I liked least, an oversensitive bully who brought to the match his overflowing trousseau of sermons and insecurities. After great storms of tears and reproaches between the women, my grandmother was left behind in our old apartment and I found myself part of a new family in a worse apartment on the other side of town, with new rules to follow and new things to worry about.

Earl immediately began his campaign to remove me from my “snobbish” grandmother’s influence altogether. It took three years for him to get us out of Mountain City, but at last he succeeded, which meant plucking me out of my beloved St. Clothilde’s, to which I had won a full high school scholarship the year before. Thus at the end of ninth grade, when I was going on fifteen, we packed up and drove out of our mountains, to begin our strange migrant years of “transferring” up and down the East Coast, gradually adding more human beings to our family mix, while Earl discovered, or his bosses discovered for him, that he was temperamentally unsuited to a career in chain store management. In those gypsy years of Earl’s and Mother’s, I felt like someone kidnapped from my rightful environment and tethered to a caravan of someone else’s descent.

In my last year at St. Clothilde’s, when our ninth grade had been immersed in David Copperfield, Sister Elise, a svelte, scholarly young nun recently transferred from Boston, read us a letter the adult Dickens had written to a friend, describing his terrible experience of being sent to work in a blacking factory at age twelve. It was for less than a year, while his family was bankrupt and living in debtors’ prison, but, Sister Elise informed us in her Back Bay accent, it left a scar (“skaah”) on Dickens forever, even after he had become rich and world famous and was surrounded by an adoring family of his own. No words could express, Dickens had written to his friend, the secret agony of his young soul as he sank into this low life, pasting labels onto blacking bottles for six shillings a month in a rat-infested warehouse with urchin boys who mockingly called him “the little gentleman.” Snatched from his studies with an Oxford tutor, obliged to pawn all his books (The Arabian Nights, his favorite eighteenth-century novels), the young Dickens felt his early hopes of growing up to be a distinguished and learned person crushed in his breast. All that he had learned and thought and delighted in was passing away from him day by day. His whole nature, he wrote to the friend who, Sister Elise told us, was to become his first biographer, had been so pene- trated with grief and humiliation that even now he often forgot in his dreams that he had escaped it all and was famous, caressed, and happy.

Now I, too, knew that constant sinking feeling of losing ground. Each day seemed to put more distance between me and where I thought I should be by this time, had Earl not entered our lives. Had I stayed on at smart, rigorous St. Clothilde’s, I would be polishing my already sterling record to a high sheen and—as many of my classmates would go on to do—would graduate with a nice bouquet of scholarship offers from top colleges, including Sister Elise’s own Radcliffe. Whereas, tethered to Earl’s itinerant career, I had to start all over again each year in a new high school (once I did two schools in a single year), make my qualities known as quickly as possible, and pray I could claw my way into a college, any college, somehow. Very early on in our life together, Earl had announced that even if he could afford to send me, which he certainly couldn’t, he wouldn’t, because his own parents, who could have afforded it, hadn’t offered to send him.

His backhandings and beatings and sneaky nocturnal raids on my person accrued with my advancing teens. Like the slave owners in the not-so-distant past, he unctuously assumed it was his right to do as he pleased with the flesh under his care. No season went by without a bruise on my face for “answering back.” I grew accustomed to awakening in the dark to find him kneeling beside my bed, engaged in one of his proprietary gropes beneath my nightgown. If I cried out, he would shush me sanctimoniously. Did I want to wake the baby, the babies? I’d been moaning in my sleep again, he said, and he’d only come to check.

During my last year of high school I wrote a masterful begging letter to Mother’s rich cousin in Alabama, the one who had wanted to annex me and Mother, and she agreed to pay for one semester at a time at a junior college for girls in Raleigh. If I kept up my grades, there would be another semester, “but after two years, darling, you’re on your own.” The implication being that two years would give any diligent girl time to either win a scholarship to the state university or find a husband to support her. Already at seventeen the rich cousin had snared her future millionaire, as she had more than once pointed out.

I had no difficulty making the grades at the junior college and winning a scholarship to the journalism school at Chapel Hill, but that still left the summers to get through. I had to make money to cover expenses, and the job had to be somewhere that provided room and board so I could avoid Earl’s nightly prowls. The first summer, I lifeguarded at a girls’ camp; the second, I waited tables at a plush resort in Blowing Rock. The final summer, between my junior and senior years, I waited tables at the Nightingale Inn, a Jewish family hotel thirty miles from Mountain City. By this time, Earl and Mother were back in Mountain City, Earl having gone into the construction business with his father. And since their little house was now burgeoning with offspring, I was allowed to sleep unmolested across town beside Loney, the “snobbish” grandmother, in her lavender-scented four-poster bed when I “came home” to visit my family during college breaks.

And that, Major Marjac, is the behind-the-scenes résumé of the young woman you met on the train who “started ahead of the game.”

As I stepped down onto the platform of the Miami depot, there was Tess, who had been my mother’s college roommate at Converse until Tess dropped out her freshman year to go home to Florida and become Miss Miami Beach. The last time I had seen Tess was when I was seven and she came to stay with us in Mountain City to recuperate from ruining her life. I was surprised to see she was the same platinum-blond goddess I remembered. In a recent letter to Mother she had announced that her looks were completely gone and she was saving for a face-lift. But why was she wearing her white uniform and stockings and nurse’s shoes on Sunday? She gathered me to her bosom like her own lost child and lavished effusions against my cheek in a whispery little-girl voice totally incongruous with her adult beauty.

“Emma, sweet, you’re here at last! Even prettier than the picture your mother sent, which she didn’t need to. I would have recognized you anywhere. Your ‘Emma-ness’ is exactly the same.”

Though Tess tended to flatter everybody, her remark gave me a jolt of elation. I made up my mind to adopt this concept of “Emma-ness” as a talisman against those loss-of-self times that flattened me. She still wore Joy, the perfume her husband had chosen for her. What did she have to do without in order to buy it for herself now?

We tussled over who would carry the heaviest of my suitcases. She prevailed, and dragged her way fetchingly ahead of me to a baby blue Cadillac DeVille. She had not lost her slim, curvaceous figure, my mother would be glad to hear. Or would she?

“You have to be wary of this humidity, Emma, until your blood has a chance to thin. Also, we’ve been having this spate of damp weather, which doesn’t help, either.” Tess was puffing by the time she allowed me to help her heft the big suitcase into a carpeted trunk that could have held three more sets of luggage. “This is Hector’s new car. He insisted I take it to meet you.”

“How generous of him.” On leaving the train, I hadn’t noticed the humidity, but as soon as Tess drew my attention to it I could feel it sapping my energy.

After ruining her life, Tess had gone to vocational college and was now nurse-assistant to Dr. Hector Rodriguez, a dental surgeon in Coral Gables.

“Oh, Hector is the most generous man in the world. His patients call him Doctor Magnánimo. He’s always giving things away and he’ll see you on the weekend if you’re in pain, which is why I have to head back to the office after we get you settled at your hotel. He’s starting a root canal this afternoon for a man who’s in agony.”

“Doctor Magnánimo,” I echoed, trying to copy the sexy way she lightly tongued the back of her front teeth for the first n.

“See, Emma, you sound like a natural already! So many of their words are the same as ours, only with this little extra flourish on the end. You’ll pick up Spanish in no time in Miami.” (Tess pronounced it “My-AM-uh.”) “There are lots of Cubans and more coming over all the time, professional, well-bred people like Hector and his wife, Asunción, although they left a while ago to get away from Batista. The ones arriving now are coming because Fidel has let them down. But you know all about that, you’re going to be a reporter on the Star.”

“As soon as they wrote to say I had the job, I subscribed to the paper. I’ve been reading it cover to cover since February, everything from Castro’s land grabs to the big Miami society weddings.”

Damn, blast, shit, hell, Emma. Why didn’t you stop at Castro? But Tess neither flinched nor looked sad, as though she didn’t recall herself being the star of one of those big society weddings. Her perfect Grecian profile went right on smiling as she steered serenely down a wide avenue, the skirt of her crisp uniform tugged up to reveal her shapely white-stockinged thighs.

“Hector said you must be just phenomenally smart, to land a job like this right out of college. Everybody wants to be a reporter for the Star. I said yes, you were, just like your mamma. I can’t wait for you to meet Hector. And Asunción, too, of course.”

“Well, I don’t know about phenomenally,” I said. The way she had dutifully tacked on Asunción made me ponder whether Doctor Magnánimo might be more to her than just a generous boss.

But mostly I was occupied with keeping myself intact in this new environment. My guerrilla antennae were on full alert, sensing new threats and opportunities pulsing at me as we skimmed along streets lined with palm trees and sea grapes and modest pastel bungalows with those slatted glass windows that keep the heat and rain out. In this tropical city I would have to wear lighter clothes; more of my body would be on display for new critics as well as new potential gropers. There would be levels of sophistication to tap into without revealing my ignorance, levels far more demanding than Major Marjac asking me about wine. There would be new brands of wickedness undreamed of by someone arriving overnight from a sheltered Southern university existence. And usurpers a million times subtler and smoother than Earl.

“I think you’re going to like your hotel,” Tess was saying. “It has a pool and it’s only a few blocks from Miami Avenue. You’ll be able to walk to work in your heels. We were able to get you the special monthly rate because the manager, Alex de Costa, is Hector’s patient. Alex was being groomed to take over his grandfather’s hotel in Havana, but when things got shaky down there, the grandfather had the foresight to sell out in time and buy the Julia Tuttle here. It was a little run-down, but he’s reno-vated it in the European style. Hector says it’s exactly like a good family hotel in Madrid or Barcelona now.”

“Should I know who Julia Tuttle is?”

“The Mother of Miami? You certainly should! She made Henry Flag-ler bring the railroad here from Jacksonville. When everything north of Miami froze, she sent him a box with an orange blossom from her tree, and that convinced him. Your hotel stands on the land where her old home was. Granny sewed for Julia and her daughter, you know. Mother remembers Granny altering a whole bunch of Julia’s gowns for Miss Fannie right after Julia dropped dead. Poor Julia, she was only forty-eight. I’ll be, well, close to that next year, but don’t you dare tell a soul. Granny always said Julia worked too hard on her dream and it killed her. Miami was just a swamp full of Seminoles and alligators before Julia came down here on a barge after her husband’s death, with all her furniture and silver from Ohio. She had this dream of creating a beautiful subtropical resort, and she made it happen, though she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it nowadays.”

Tess didn’t resent other people’s accomplishments or good fortune, even with her own life so compromised. I was sure that in her place I would have become bitter or crazy. Here she was working on Sunday in a white uniform for a Cuban dentist when she had once traveled by private yacht. She had not seen her high-school-age son since he was fifteen months old. The first thing I planned to do when I got to the Star was to look up Tess in the newspaper’s morgue. Not even Mother knew the whole story, and I had promised I would find out what I could.

My first impression of the Julia Tuttle was a letdown, followed by a distinct relief that I could just be myself here. Based on my furtive Christmas stay at the Kenilworth over on the Beach, paid for by someone else, I had expected more glitter and swank in a Miami hotel, even the kind I could afford. Tess was the only platinum blonde in sight, and there was none of that high-gloss decor or those snooty personnel strutting around to make you feel unstylish. A black man in a striped bib apron whom Tess addressed as Clarence loaded my suitcases onto a trolley. The only other visible staff member was a morose-looking desk clerk in a pleated shirt worn outside the pants and a few strips of hair plastered over his bald pate. His countenance brightened when Tess introduced us, and the next thing I knew he was handing me three letters, including one from Mother and one from Loney.

When I saw the creamy unstamped third envelope with its elegant red logo in the upper left corner, my heart sustained an electric surge, even though I would have been furious had that exact envelope not been waiting for me. I slipped it quickly beneath the others as Tess was conversing with the desk clerk in her sensual, tongue-tripping Spanish, which made her seem like a different version of herself. She switched back into En-glish while discussing my arrangements.

“Is Alex here, Luís? I’d like him to meet Emma.” To me she said, “That’s the manager I was telling you about.”

“No, señora, is his bridge game Sunday afternoon.”

“Oh, of course, it’s Sunday, isn’t it? I’m confused because we’re working today, Doctor Hector is starting a root canal for a patient in pain.”

As we crossed the Mediterranean-tiled lobby where Clarence waited with my bags by the elevator, an arresting family tableau caught my eye. A pretty woman wearing a pillbox hat with veil and a stylish traveling suit was reading aloud to a little girl who sat beside her on a love seat flanked by potted palms and surrounded by a stockade of matching suitcases. The girl supported two solemn-faced porcelain dolls on her lap in the laissez-faire way a loving mother might balance two well-behaved offspring who could be depended on to stay put. The aloof faces of all three seemed to be equally riveted on the woman’s sprightly reading—“a la tarde . . . los niños saltaban . . . Platero . . . giraba sobre sus patas”—and I was elated that merely in passing I could understand enough phrases (“in the afternoon . . . the children were jumping . . . Platero . . . spun on his hooves”) to recognize Juan Ramón Jiménez’s tale of his pet donkey, Platero and I, which we’d studied in first semester of college Spanish. Close by them stood a strikingly handsome man in wilted white linen, frowning and looking slightly beside himself as he ticked off items on a list with a silver pencil. Meanwhile, a chauffeur carried in more luggage to add to the pile already surrounding them.

“Ah, God, here come some more,” Tess murmured angrily as we passed. “If Fidel doesn’t stop breaking his promises, he’s going to wake up one morning and find all the good people gone.”

My room was on the fifth floor of the twelve-story Julia Tuttle, and Tess, having sent Clarence away with a folded bill before I could get my purse unzipped, proceeded to check out my closet, drawers, and bathroom. I went first thing to the window above the air conditioner to see what I would be looking out on for the next few months. It wasn’t the ocean view, which the front rooms had, but the vista was agreeable and in its way less lonely. The Miami River, with its drawbridge and boat traffic, was to my left, the hotel’s Olympic-size pool, surrounded by blue-and-white-striped cabanas, gleamed invitingly below, and to the right was a portion of Miami skyline, including, Tess proudly pointed out, as though she had put it there herself, the top of the Star building, where I would start work tomorrow.

Tess explained that patients sometimes had adverse reactions, and she had to remain at the office until they felt well enough to travel, so she couldn’t be with me my first evening. She named the eating places in walking distance, a White Castle and a Howard Johnson’s, and we made plans to have dinner the next evening.

“And tomorrow night, we’ll really celebrate,” she promised as she headed gaily off to the root canal.

I had concealed my relief, satisfying her that I welcomed an early night in order to be fresh for the job tomorrow. As soon as I had assured myself of that third letter in the packet Lu’s handed over, I had begun worrying what lie to tell Tess, who had no idea I knew a soul but her in Miami.

As soon as I was alone, I threw myself on the bed and opened the creamy unstamped envelope with its Bal Harbour address.

Will call for you at your hotel at 7 p.m.
Paul

Then I flew into action, unpacking my bags and lining the drawers and shelves with the sheets of lavender-scented paper supplied by my grandmother. Loney had sent them, along with six pairs of stockings and a new Vanity Fair slip, for my graduation, from which “her heart”had kept her home. Which was true in the equivocal sense that she stayed behind with her mild angina to take care of my three little half siblings so Mother and Earl would be free to enjoy the trip alone.

After arranging my things in their Loneyed nests, I plugged up the tub, ran it half full of hot water, hung tomorrow’s work outfit and tonight’s dress on the shower-curtain rod, and shut them up in the bathroom to steam out the wrinkles. I then flopped back down on the bed to read my other letters.

Loney, who did not think of herself as a writer, had come through with her usual page-and-a-half nosegay of faith, hope, and unconditional love, with one of her observant sprigs of advice thrown in, like a florist’s free fern.

. . . If you’ll just remember, Emma, that you can’t be everybody at once, you’ll do fine.

My mother, whose thwarted desire was to have her writing talents recognized by the world, had gone all out with a four-page single-spaced masterpiece typed on Corrasable Bond, written and mailed the Monday before my graduation so it would be sure to be here to greet me. It was both an idyllic recounting of our best times together, mostly from the pre-Earl period, and her triumphal prophecy of my eventual success in garnering the laurels that had eluded her. She did not relay any news or anecdotes about my little half siblings. This was strictly a mother-daughter valedictory. Just skimming it elicited tears; it had probably, I thought, made the writer weep while typing it. To confront it sentence by sentence, which I postponed doing, would bring guilt and sorrow. She was the wounded comrade I had to leave behind in the cross fire of her conflicted destiny.

I returned to the note that had been hand-delivered to the Julia Tuttle, rereading and savoring it. I allowed myself to be the person who had pulled out a fresh sheet of club stationery from his desk drawer over in Bal Harbour and scrawled this ultrarestrained welcome. I imagined the images going through his head as he anticipated our reunion tonight, until the power of my own imagination brought on a little shudder of rapture. Whereupon I returned the note to its envelope and tucked it midway into the new “Go, Tar Heels!” spiral-bound notebook, which was to be the first of my Miami journals. I still had the rest of the afternoon to get through. Perhaps I would sample the pool.

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Reading Group Guide

1. On page 117, Emma thinks it is “utterly spellbinding” that she is actually standing by the gurney of this former madam, “the Queen of the Underworld,” she has been dying to meet. “How thankful I was that I’d headed straight for the hospital after the tornado. In a way, I realized, this amazing scene had been my creation.” What does Emma mean by this? Can you cite other examples in the novel of Emma’s resourcefulness?

2. This story takes place in 1959. Does the novel feel “historical” to you? How so? How not? How has the world changed since then?

3. Imagine Emma’s story if it were unfolding today. How would this different era affect her chances to realize her ambitions? Would she have the same chances? Better? Worse?

4. On page 59, when Emma is in the newspaper morgue reading the news clips about Ginevra Snow, she thinks, “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 in her circumstances.” Now go to page 335, where Emma again thinks of the Queen of the Underworld: “She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for, the opposite of the old maid who had died in her flyblown hamlet as my train passed without ever setting off on her own adventure. . . . She was my sister adventurer, another unique and untransferable self who had been places I hadn’t and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.” What are some “alternative versions” of yourself ? Are there figures in your life, people you have glimpsed–or known–who embody some aspect of what you don’t want to become (like Emma’s imagined old maid)? And what about people who make you question what you would be like if you had been brought up in their history? And what about people who “have been places” you haven’t and who “have returned with just the sort of details” you crave to imagine further?

5. Queen of the Underworld is dedicated “to the exiles, wherever you are now.” Do you think the author refers to the Cuban exiles Emma meets in the summer of 1959, or does she mean it in a broader sense? Have you ever been an exile? From your homeland? From a life you felt was rightfully yours? How did your specific form of exile change your life?

6. The word “usurp,” Emma tells us, has become her adversarial banner (page 9). She goes on to elaborate: “And the more I meditated on it, the more the ‘usurp’ word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.”What are your definitions of “usurpation”? What forms of it have you experienced?

7. Do you believe a person has a unique and untransferable self ? Or not? Discuss how Emma’s “story so far” might have been different if she had not believed in her unique and untransferable self.

8. Queen of the Underworld is a very populated book. How many of the characters can you recall? Which were your favorites? Which reminded you of someone you know–or of yourself? Which ones did you dislike? Which ones did you feel could have been left out? Which ones would you have liked to know more about?

9. Were there things about Emma that you disapproved of ? If she had been a male character, would you have felt the same?

10. Were you surprised or disappointed by Ginevra’s choices at the end of the book? Do you think Emma will ever write her novel inspired by “the Queen of the Underworld”? How might that novel be different from Ginevra Brown’s story?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2006

    Seems unfinished

    After reading 'A Mother and Two Daughters' and other Gail Godwin books, I felt as if I had been cut off in the middle of a chapter. Surely, this is not how the book should end! What on earth is she thinking? There is so much more to explore in the Miami-Cuban exile, the love affair with Paul, the work up to the top of the reporting lineage. We have been cheated. I liked Gail Godwin books for one reason - they were LONG! Lots of plots and character development. This one has neither.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2006

    Waste of Time

    I struggled through this book, hoping that each of the four parts would finally flesh out these interesting and intriguing characters. However, that was the basic problem with the novel - no character development. I kept thinking this was written like a script, and that good actors would somehow be able to convey the essence of the character they might be playing. Annoying too, were the repetitious letters to the protagaonist's family which simply recapped the story. The long passages in Spanish seemed to serve no purpose except to display the author's fluency in the language. And, the printing of the heroine's newspaper stories word for word made for quite a lot of skipping text. I've enjoyed Godwin's previous works, especially 'Father Melancholy's Daughter' but on this one, she seemed to be merely putting words on paper.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2013

    Not wirth the time or money!! I kept waiting for this book to mo

    Not wirth the time or money!! I kept waiting for this book to move past the self-absorbed, jealous and arrogant main character. Emma seems to view life from only her perspective - what people can do for her or how they are out to get her. Sad! 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2007

    BIG dissappointment

    Emma was a sorry excuse for a women. She seemed clueless to her impact on others or to what was going on in the world around her. The sentences in this book were choppy and the dialogue didn't flow at all. The entire book felt like I was waiting for something to happen and it never did. The characters were very superficial.Not worth reading at all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2007

    A reviewer

    This was my first Gail Godwin and probably my last. I could not warm up to Emma - for some reason, I found her arrogant with very little to redeem that impression. And I found Godwin's slant on history somewhat specious. Castro is hardly a heroic figure, but the fact is that many of the exiles that left Cuba at the time Castro took over were wealthy and corrupt, as was Battista. The charming exiles in the Julia Tuttle Hotel with their huge estates and business in Cuba were probably guilty of exploiting the Cuban poor and lower middle class. It made it difficult for me to sympathize with the exiles. But more unforgivable is that, as one other review said, the book just ends. I don't mind being challenged by a book and don't necessarily have to have all loose ends tied up, but I got the feeling that Ms. Godwin just got tired of writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2007

    A reviewer

    Emma Gant has a huge appetite for life! She's just graduated from college and landed a coveted job as a reporter at the Miami Star newspaper. Anxious to escape having to return to her stepfather's physical and sexual abuse, she's put plenty of energy into getting as far away from him as she can, albeit regretting the whole situation for her mother whom she dearly loves. But enthusiasm hardly prepares Emma for what she will meet in steaming, multicultural Miami. Yes, she's got an older lover there already but she's still unprepared for the cutthroat competition she will meet in the journalistic world. Starting out writing miniscule obit and hospital reports, she manages in the two weeks in which this novel takes place to discover the secrets behind the Miami Mafia, Cuban exiles shipping illegal arms as dental equipment back to Cuba during the time of Fidel Castro's rise to power, and the sad story behind an ex-Madam of a whorehouse. Although much that happens in the space of these two weeks, it's all pretty much covered on the surface without much development. But one must place one's self within the context of a woman working a new job in the man's world of the 1960s. Keeping that in mind, Emma's propulsion into all of this worldly activity certainly makes sense and makes for interesting reading. She's a gutsy character who rises from her losses prepared to tackle whatever challenges come her way. The only thing that doesn't make much sense is her falling for an older guy, given her negative background with her stepfather. Given the rapidly changing world of the 60's generation, though, Emma Gant (catch the literary parallels with Jane Austin and Thomas Wolfe's characters) certainly gets an education about rich Cuban exiles now floating in memories and little else, the 'Lucifer-like' world of journalism, but most of all dreaming big no matter what the world tosses one's way Interesting story that has plenty of zip in spots! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on March 18, 2007

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    interesting look at 1960s Miami

    In 1959, having just graduated college and unable to stay under the domineering control of her parents, Emma Gant leaves North Carolina by train to start as a reporter at the Miami Star at a time when the southern city is a hot bed of Cuban exiles. Adding to her self imposed exile to southern Florida is her married lover Miami Beach nightclub owner Paul Nightingale lives there. --- In Miami she takes a room at the Julia Tuttle Hotel where Emma meets Cuban families who fled Castro¿s revolution. Life is exciting for Emma as she learns how to be a real journalist mentored by professionals at the Star and much about Cuba before and during the Castro conquest. Struggling with influences that pull at the young reporter, Emma meets a horde of people impacted by Castro¿s Communist revolution especially a non-journalist life mentor former madam Ginevra Brown, THE QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD. --- This is an interesting look at Miami at a time of turmoil that has turned the city and much of Southern Florida upside down. The support cast is solid and eccentric adding a touch of time and place to what the rookie reporter observes as everyday people do non-ordinary tasks. The heroine is also well drawn as more of an observer who has broken the prime directive of not getting involved in the story. However, the influx of sidebars like segments in Spanish and newspaper articles may augment the realism, but disrupts the flow of the story line though overall Gail Godwin provides a fine look at 1960s Miami. --- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2006

    What a disappointment!

    I had been eagerly awaiting a new book by Gail Godwin. Her other novels grabbed you on the first page and didn't let go until the end. This novel was very disjointed, too much Spanish, too many newspaper articles and just ended with the turning of a page. I was tempted several times to just put the book down, but hope kept me going to an abrupt unfinished ending.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2006

    bad

    I did not know if I could finish reading this book. So long and so empty... I wonder why the editor took the risk to publish. One funny detail: the character is a journalist who doesn't watch tv!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2006

    Thoroughly Entertaining

    Full of interesting characers, great insight into a fascinating time in Miami and a heroine who is witty, insightful and leads us through some fun and poignant stories. A delightful read.

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    VOICE PERFORMANCE IS PURE PLEASURE - ENJOY!

    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2006

    Her other books are better

    This is an interesting book which provides a background on Cuban citizens in Florida and depicts a young, self-involved woman testing her strength and attractiveness. I suspect Godwin has begun a retrospective look at her life, coupled as this book is with the publication of the first volume of her extremely detailed memoir (which may actually be of more interest to her fans.) I found this book disappointing since the main character does not have the depth of figures in her earlier works. That may well be the point, since who among us at a young age had any true depth?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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