Sunday, July 27, 2014

412 (2014 #40). The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

by Susan Jane Gilman

It's 1983, and ice-cream magnate Lillian Dunkle is looking back on the past 70 years of her life while awaiting the outcome of tax evasion charges and a personal lawsuit.

In 1913, 5-6-year-old Malka Treynovsky, loud and curious, immigrates with her Jewish parents - who'd originally planned to go to Cape Town - and three older sisters from Russia to New York City.  Just three months after arriving at their Orchard Street tenement, her father having abandoned the family, Malka is run over by a horse and is crippled for life.  Malka's mother is overwhelmed and leaves her at the hospital.  Salvatore Dinello, the immigrant Italian ices peddler whose horse ran over Malka, feels compelled to take her home.

The Dinellos expect Malka to earn her keep, and every day she helps make the ices - and later, the ice cream the family sells.  Malka ingratiates herself with the family (although not always in the best way), eventually being baptized as Lillian Maria Dinello.

Lillian is not especially pretty, but she's very smart, and the Dinellos send her to college.  She tutors privately on the side, and meets illiterate, stuttering Albert Dunkle - another Jewish immigrant who is a whiz with machines.  They eventually marry, and between Bert's invention of the soft-serve machine and Lillian's marketing magic (and a bit of luck), they grow an ice cream franchising empire.  Yet Lillian continues to be haunted with feelings of abandonment and insecurity, which makes her vulnerable in some situations and abrasive in others.

Lillian isn't the most likable of characters, but her story is a great one.  Susan Jane Gilman did extensive research on both immigrant life in the tenements of New York in the 1910s and 1920s, as well as on ice cream.  The Carvel Ice Cream Company was her inspiration, and she even worked there for a while to get a feel for the industry.

I love the cover; the dropped and melting ice cream cone looks like an unhappy clown.  Unlike the cone, this book is hard to drop - you will be tempted - as you must do with ice cream - to finish it all in one sitting.  I think my book club might like this book too.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received a hardbound final copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  I plan to hang on to the book for a while for a future re-read.]

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