Emma Gant has just graduated with a journalism degree. She moves to Miami to work as a reporter for the Miami Star and to be near her married lover, Paul. It is 1959 and Emma is soon fascinated by the Cuban exiles living in her hotel, the Julia Tuttle, who tell her their stories of Cuba under Castro. Many appear hopeful that the Castro problem will somehow resolve itself so they can return home, but others are joining the revolution to battle him.
Ambitious Emma yearns for a big story as she labors over the obituary notices. She is jealous that another reporter made his name years before on a juicy story revolving around Ginevra Brown, the "Queen of the Underground," a madam with classy manners and Mob connections. In fact, Emma feels that Ginevra's story should have belonged to her, and continues to research it and puzzle over it.
Meanwhile, Tess, an old family friend with a colorful past, mystifies Emma. Tess appears to be skulking about in the middle of the night, receiving crates containing dental equipment for the dentist for whom she works. Is Tess romantically involved with Dr. Hector Rodriguez?
On the eve of Emma's 22nd birthday, as she's weeping over her disappointment that Paul will not be with her the next day, she is struck with a vision of the relationship's future. Simultaneously, a tornado strikes Miami. Alex de Costa, the Cuban-American manager of Emma's hotel, offers to drive her to the hospital to gather news for the Star. There's a connection of some kind between Emma and Alex, but Emma is unsure of the exact nature of their bond.
At the hospital, in the midst of injured patients, Emma discovers an unlikely opportunity: Ginevra Brown, the object of Emma's fascination, is in the emergency room with her third suicide attempt. Emma's brief conversation with Ginevra only serves to whet her appetite to learn more about the woman's present life. Given Ginevra's husband's disapproval of journalists, can Emma somehow forge a bond with the former Queen of the Underground?
Emma meets an incredible yet entirely plausible cast of characters, including a Cuban writer who smuggles notes for a memoir sewn into his young bride's wedding gown; a hard-edged competitor at the newspaper office; and Paul's aunt, a perfumer who creates unique scents for individuals.
Gail Godwin suffuses the story with sultry Miami atmosphere, bits of nearly forgotten history, flashes of humor, and fascinating newspaper room politics. The reader does not believe for one second that the people and stories are anything but real. As in real life, characters refuse to be pigeonholed: Alex's relationship to Emma is never quite defined and Paul's wife is Emma's friend. This is a big, delicious feast of a novel, all the better to savor in a leisurely fashion (if you can resist the urge to gulp it down in one sitting). It's a treat to join Emma on her journey and nearly painful to come to the end of it. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (email@example.com) on January 23, 2011
Queen of the Underworld