Plucky Emma Gant, just twenty-two and newly graduated from college, is overjoyed to obtain a position with the prestigious Miami Star, and she hopes to report on some controversial stories.
Miami in 1959 holds many surprises for Emma: it is is a city on the brink, brimming over with the recent influx of Cuban immigrants, refugees intent in escaping Castro's
Emma secures a room at Cuban-American-owned hotel, The Julie Tuttle, and enthusiastically throws herself into her job, researching human-interest stories, reporting news off the local wires, and writing obituaries.
Determined to report on more than women's stories, Emma has an arsenal of personal weaponry up her sleeve.
She uses her fierce guile, her goal-orientated politeness, and a teeth-gritting staying power to try and secure for herself a place with the team of mostly
male hotshot reporters.
Haunted by her stepfather's abuse, "his backhandings, beatings, and sneaky nocturnal raids," Emma is determined distance herself from her unstable past. She finds support in the arms of Paul, a
suave, sophisticated and very married middle-aged Jewish hotelier she met while waiting tables
in college. Emma hopes someday she may be able to live with him now that she is in Miami. Connecting with Paul makes Emma feel "fortified rather than raided;" he
is like "an alien lover from a place where lovemaking was practiced as precise and artful mutual refueling."
While Emma tries to meet the demands of her new job, she hears a story about a poor Georgia fruitstand beauty, Ginevra Snow, who became a glamorous and wealthy socialite, eventually earning the title the Queen of the Underworld. Involved in the bust-up of an elite house of prostitution run by her mobster uncle on Palm Island, this enigmatic woman, who came from rags to riches and then went to an exclusive finishing school for girls,
Ginevra Snow steadily becomes Emma's quarry; she wants more than anything to
secure an interview with this former madam and star witness of a sensational trial that, for weeks at a time, made headlines in Miami. This "queen of the underworld" is the worthy subject Emma has been waiting for: an adventurer and unique individual who has been places Emma hasn't, and who has returned with just the sort of details Emma craves to imagine further.
Gail Godwin brings the Cuban flavor of Miami in the late 1950s to life, peppering the story with astute observations on the Cuban social and political upheavals of the time. The city is flooded with refugees, particularly the wealthy
who have escaped with their money, either renting or buying homes. The Julia Tuttle Hotel, in particular, is filling up with
these people without the least idea where they might be tomorrow.
Queen of the Underworld takes place at a time of largely conventional morality, where family dramas and extramarital affairs remain secret. Emma
must tread lightly in her affair with Paul, and her youthful casualness, self-absorption, even over-enthusiasm
risk getting her into trouble at work. Filled with a stunningly dogged competence and with all the independence that her era permits, it is her ambition to become the very best journalist
- to get "the story" that propels the plot forward.
However, there is something a little flat and perfunctory about this novel, the narrative coming across as rather tepid and uninspired.
The prose is good, but the plot languishes. Goodwin's portrayal of Emma as a kind of proto-feminist - an intelligent and capable woman, unconstrained by the limitations of her era - is generally good and surprisingly modern, but for all the romanticizing of Emma's journey toward professional and personal redemption, her story is, in the end, a rather mediocre and passionless affair.