“We’d been in America just three months when the horse ran over me.” With an opening line like that, it’s safe to say that it’s impossible not to be intrigued, and eventually completely seduced, by the charms of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. This is Susan Jane Gilman’s multi decades sprawling novel about Malka Treynovsky, a Russian Jewish immigrant who would go on to become known as Lillian Dunkle, the dairy royal of the book’s title. With a picaresque tone and first person narration reminiscent of Charles Dickens, Gilman’s novel is a delightful chronicle of New York history as seen through the eyes of the kind of person who built it and turned it into what it eventually became.
Narrated by Lillian in her ’80s, as she looks back on her life, the book presents us with a narrator who is unreliable because sometimes she fails to see how blind she can be to the way in which her actions affect others. She refers to the readers as “darlings”, and as such embodies the infectious joie de vivre of someone in the vein of Auntie Mame or Holly Golightly; two iconic popular culture storytellers who knew a story was only worth telling when it had the right flair to go along with it.
We follow Lillian’s struggles as a child whose parents were trying too hard to make a new life for their family and had little time to work on things modern society regards highly, such as self esteem. “With a face like yours, no one may ever marry you” says Lillian’s mother to her when she is barely six years old and more than that, has been given the very adult responsibility of keeping the whole family savings safe as they embark on their journey across the ocean. Instructed by her mother to yell if someone tries to steal their money, Lillian shares the story with gleeful abandonment, perhaps little aware that such anecdotes were the ones who would shape her and make her such an ambitious entrepreneur later in life.
What Lillian never loses along the way is her capacity for awe and gratefulness. “My grandson calls 1913 ‘the olden days’”, she explains, “but the year our family arrived in America, New York City already had its first skyscrapers, its first rickety cars, its first subway lines running beneath Broadway. Bridges were garlanded with electric lights. Already it was a great, throbbing, concrete heart.” Even though by the time we meet her she’s facing prison time for tax evasion, it seems as if she can’t help but be in awe of the life she has carved out for herself.
We see how the very incident that opens the book marks her destiny forever, as Salvatore Dinello, the Italian ice vendor who runs her over ends up adopting her in order to appease his guilt, little aware that in doing so he was changing the future of his family business forever. Malka learns the ice cream trade and becomes a shrewd businesswoman who seizes opportunity whenever she finds it, and has little reservations about doing wrongful things in the name of her business.
Her tenacity and drive for survival are admirable in an Scarlett O’Hara kind of way. Gilman doesn’t really care much if we judge her heroine harshly, and for that alone, the novel is worthy of much praise. As Malka turns into Lillia,n we see reflected the idea of the American dream and how the fulfillment of its promises depends exclusively on how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Lillian leaves behind her family and her past (not that her biological family loved her that much anyway) and adopts traits from the culture that has been kind to her and from which she can extract the most benefits. When she eventually falls in love with a man who looks like a matinee idol (Errol Flynn to be more precise), but has dyslexia and stutters, we can’t help but be reminded of the way in which her mom made fun of her looks. We root for Lillian to win over this dreamboat of a man.
Gilman is a talented writer who makes Lillian seem like a real figure in American history. By weaving trivia about the history of ice cream into Lillian’s biography, which never feels like filler, we finish reading The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street half expecting the heroine’s name to pop up in actual historical conversations. Lillian’s rise and fall, her battles with kleptomania, alcoholism and arrogance, is almost parallel to other great stories which literature has usually reserved for men. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is sweet where it could’ve been corny, epic where it could’ve been overlong and enchanting where it could’ve been contrived.