Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Published on: June 10, 2014
Page Count: 512
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced reading e-book provided by NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover and Kindle e-book

My Review:

Don't be fooled by the cover of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It's brightly colored and shows a woman's feet in a fabulous pair of heels next to an upside down, melted ice cream cone. The cover reminds me of a Mary Kay Andrews book cover (not knocking Mary Kay Andrews - personally, I'm looking forward to her latest, Save the Date). Ice Cream Queen is not a girly, cutesy, pretty story. It's a story about a little girl who grows into a woman in a life filled with abandonment and setback. This main character, first named Malka and later Lillian, just gets tougher. As life gets harder, so does she.

Malka is a young Jewish Russian immigrant with her family in Germany with plans to immigrate to South Africa to be near family. Instead, Malka's father, who seemed suspicious to me from the start, exchanges their tickets for passage on a ship to New York City instead without telling Malka's mother. Malka's father forces her to keep it a secret from her mother and her other three sisters. This is just the beginning for Malka of a life of getting let down by those around her who are supposed to love and care for her.

The story, which opens early in the 20th century, shows the dismal life of poor immigrants living in crowded tenement houses in the city, and those who rise above those conditions to move themselves out of them, and those who don't. Very early on, Malka is told by her mother that to be able to eat she must bring home money. Malka and her sister put together a singing and dancing act, earning them a few pennies per day, and which helps them stay in their mother's good graces. Malka has to draw upon that experience of putting herself out there to survive day after day for the rest of her life, even after she has made it as a successful businesswoman. In Chapter 2, Malka learns to "Be shameless. Be different. And appeal to the emotions -- never the head."

After an accident Malka is abandoned by her family and taken in by an Italian Catholic family, the Dinellos. Malka's name is changed to Lillian. The Dinellos are trying to make it in the ice cream business, and Lillian learns all she can from them before she marries and is ousted from the Dinello family. Abandoned but determined to take what she learned and create a successful business herself, Lillian and new husband Bert Dunkle slowly but surely build an ice cream empire together that lasts through the book's ending in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Besides just being a good story, Gilman's writing style is fun to read. Ice Cream Queen is filled with fantastic description: "Fumes of queasy-sweet gasoline billowed from new cars rattling noisily up the avenues. And since none of the tenements had bathtubs, these odors, in turn, mixed with the gamy smell of thousands of strains of human perspiration. Yeasty, fungal skin. Rose water. Decaying teeth. Dirty diapers. Sharp, vinegary hair tonic" (Chapter 2).

As I read, I anticipated the moment that this girl with gumption would become the business-savvy woman. But there wasn't one moment, just a progression. That ability to be this kind of a go-getter was part of Malka's personality all along.

I think what I liked most about this book though is the way that Gilman doesn't just give us a rags-to-riches feel-good story. Lillian is flawed. She does the best she can but she makes plenty of mistakes. Lillian knows how to learn from those mistakes and she's thick-skinned enough to keep moving forward and ignore what people around her are saying about her. Her career ebbs and flows, as do her marriage and her relationship with her son, who come second to that career. She faces addiction. Gilman has painted her as human rather than perfect. We all have our faults. Life isn't as sweet as the cover of The Ice Cream Queen indicates.

Four out of five stars

If you liked The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, you'll like Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Kisses on a Postcard by Terence Frisby, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

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