Book Review: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
Published By: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: July 7, 2015
Page Count: 528
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Audience: Adult - Literary Fiction
When Malka Treynovsky fled imperial Russia with her family in 1913, she had no idea of what fate had in store for her in the United States. Forced by necessity (and her mother) to work, Malka learns the art of hard work and hustle. Malka is eventually abandoned by her family after an accident leaves her crippled. The Dinello family takes her in and, along with tough love and high expectations, gives Malka her first taste of ice cream. After she marries Albert Dunkle, the two of them set off to build an ice cream empire.
I loved so many things about The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street! Susan Jane Gilman’s writing evokes the difficulty of keeping a family together in such stressful times, newly immigrated, speaking little to no English, and poor. As I was reading, I could hear the noise of the streets and smell the dirt, horses, and cooking scents wafting through the air. She makes a point of the difference between the true “American Dream” which is modest (a comfortable living and home ownership) versus the “rags to riches” story which is an unrealistic expectation for most. Immigrant life was full of heartbreakingly difficult choices to make.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street also struck a personal chord with me. Several branches in my family tree were Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States around the same time as the Treynovskys. In fact, my great-grandfather was a candy maker working in a very similar area. When Malka (then Lillian) talks about getting candy from a shop on the boardwalk, it could easily have been from my great-grandfather!
Gilman’s characters were also a high point for me. Lillian Dunkle, the woman Malka Treynovsky becomes, is fabulous! It isn’t often that readers are given an anti-heroine, and Lillian is perfection as a woman who makes her fortune peddling ice cream and grandmotherly shtick, who is semi-alcoholic and actually doesn’t like kids. She is, in her own words, such a “wisenheimer!” Among Gilman’s other delightfully different characters are: Albert, Lillian’s husband, a beautiful, kind hearted Adonis of a man with a terrible stutter; Lillian’s father, Herschel Treynovsky, a restless, ne’er do well; and her mother, Tillie, who makes her presence felt throughout the story even though she disappears from the story early on. So memorable!
The only thing, really, that I didn’t like about this book is its lack of glossary. Malka/Lillian and her family throw around a lot of Yiddish expressions. I grew up hearing many of them from my grandmother, but I still needed to look up quite a few. I can only imagine that readers with no Jewish immigrant background will want to read this book either on an e-reader or with a Yiddish dictionary close at hand. Yiddish adds a lot of color (it’s such an expressive language), but also a little perplexity if you don’t.
Now in paperback, bestselling author Susan Jane Gilman's IndieNext Pick novel about an immigrant girl's transformation into an indomitable businesswoman in early 20th century New York.
As a child in 1913, Malka Treynovsky flees Russia for New York with her family--only to be crippled and abandoned in the streets. Taken in by a tough-loving Italian ices peddler, Malka survives. When she falls in love with Albert, they set off together across America in an ice cream truck to seek their fortune; slowly, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, "The Ice Cream Queen of America"--doyenne of an empire of ice cream franchises and a celebrated television personality.
Spanning 70 years, Lillian's rise--fraught with setbacks, triumphs, and tragedies--is inextricably linked to the course of American history itself, from Prohibition to the disco days of Studio 54. And when her past starts catching up with her, her world implodes spectacularly.