two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Gail Godwin
user_rating: 
0

A-QueenOfUnderworldIn 1959, Emma Grant, fresh out of college, lands a job as a reporter at the Miami Star. Over the course of 10 days, the starry-eyed neophyte learns a few things about reporting—and life. Lodged at the Julia Tuttle Hotel, she meets a colorful cast of characters: a group of upper-class Cuban exiles fleeing Castro’s regime, an arms-smuggling dentist (whom she meets through Tess, her mother’s old college friend), and Queen of the Underworld, a former madam involved with the Mafia. All have closely guarded secrets, ready to explode. So does Emma, not least of which is a married lover two decades her senior.
Random House. 352 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0345483189

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The wizardry of this novel is its pitch-perfect rendition of what it was like to be a true solo artist, a female of ambition coming out of the 1950s America, where social expectations for women did not routinely include real careers in big cities at major media outlets." Madeleine Blais

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"You would think that by this time America might have produced a dramatic and moving bildungsroman about a female writer in her formative years, something along the lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. … Finally, after 150 years and more of the novel’s evolution in the U.S., we have a book that more than fills the role." Alan Cheuse

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The plot of Queen of the Underworld is often breathlessly episodic, but moments like this poolside party where inwardly-devastated, jobless, exiled Cubans gather to drink and dance lend the novel a gravity that isn’t matched by many contemporary tales of young women striving to excel in their careers and their love lives." Jenny Shank

Dallas Morning News 2 of 5 Stars
"Gail Godwin’s new novel has a terrific first act. … It’s a brightly engaging book, but the impression it leaves is of an author so absorbed with revisiting and fictionalizing the scenes of her youth that she forgot to shape them into a novel." Charles Matthews

Hartford Courant 1.5 of 5 Stars
"There are setups—Ginevra and the gun-running Tess and Paul’s clash with Miami mobsters—but few payoffs. … All will be forgiven if this turns out to be volume one of a trilogy." Kit Reed

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1.5 of 5 Stars
"One of this country’s most acclaimed novelists, she allows almost nothing to happen between Emma’s arrival in Miami and her rerouting to a Podunk bureau some 300 pages later. … While you’re reading about Emma and her not-too-interesting newspaper stories, Tess is out there doing things you’d probably much rather read about." Diana Nelson Jones

San Diego Union-Tribune 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Queen of the Underworld often reads like a journal or a long letter home, with no detail too insignificant to leave out and no perspective brought to bear. This results in a shapelessness and an imitative fallacy, for in giving us a novel about a character at the start of her life, a character who has boundless potential, Godwin has produced a book that is all beginning and potential, with nary a whiff of a dramatic arc." Scott Leibs

Critical Summary

In her 12th novel, Godwin introduces a green reporter who enthusiastically embraces everything around her. Despite its promise as a semiautobiographical, coming-of-age story about a young woman trying to carve a career niche in Miami, many felt that Queen read more like an introduction to a novel than a novel itself. This may have something to do with the simultaneous publication of the first volume of Godwin’s diaries, The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961–1963; perhaps Godwin didn’t see beyond those early reporting years. Even more frustrating, the secondary characters and their exploits seem more interesting than Godwin’s alter ego. "There are final chords to be struck," concludes the Houston Chronicle, "and the author needs to make us hear them."

Also by the Author

Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991): Precocious Margaret is the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and his younger wife. Margaret is six years old when her mother deserts the family; she and her depressive father must try to get along without her—and try to understand why she left. See also The Odd Woman (1975).