Emma Gant, newly graduated from college and bristling with ambition, takes a job with the Miami Star in the summer of 1959 a great time to start growing up. The area overflows with Cuban refugees from Castro's revolution, but at first her attention is directed more toward the joys of being the mistress of a Jewish hotelier, a suave, and married, older man, whom she loves with the pulse-quickening jolt of being desired in all my details. Fiercely independent, Emma (no relative to Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant except in searching for her place in the world) finds herself plunged willy-nilly into the edgy scene. A former victim of child abuse, she is drawn to human interest stories, the obituaries and news stories that are the lot of a fledgling reporter, like the engrossing life of a prostitute (the eponymous Queen) whose self-improvement brings her to a dead end as the wife of an indifferent tyrant. As it turns out, Emma is in many ways a fictional stand-in for Gail Godwin herself. In fact, the first volume of Godwin's nonfiction journals, The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963, is scheduled to be published on the same date as this novel. Indeed, any questions that may arise during the reading of Queen of the Underworld may perhaps be resolved by reading both.
For those thus in the know, teasing out the connections between Godwin's fiction and her life might be the most interesting exercise of all, for, unfortunately, standing alone, this novel is not one of her best. Still, the flavor of the Cuban remake of South Florida is attractive here, and Emma's youthful insouciance and self-absorption provide an amusing backdrop to the author's own story. Add in a suspicion of roman ˆ clef both in regard to later Godwin characters and real literary folk, and this novel will tickle the imagination in more than one dimension.
Maude McDaniel writes from her home in Cumberland, Maryland.