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BOOK REVIEW: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, by Susan Jane Gilman

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Review by Claire Benedict
Take an unforgettable female protagonist, the classic immigrant story of the 20th century and a whole lot of ice cream, and you have the perfect summer novel. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman starts in the early 1900’s when little Malka and her family come to America from Russia. Living in New York City’s Jewish tenements, Malka is abandoned by her family after an accident with an Italian ices cart cripples her. The owner of the cart takes her in, and Malka lives on the fringes of the Dinello family while learning the business of ice cream. It’s not an easy life—the Dinellos never accept her as one of their own, and the poverty in the Italian neighborhood is not much better than a few blocks over. But Malka is nothing if not smart and resourceful. She soon changes her name to Lillian and as an adult she and her husband start their own ice cream business, only better: they accidentally invent soft-serve ice cream and then franchise their stores. Lillian’s rise to fame as America’s Ice Cream Queen is countered with her behind-the-scenes hard-driving personality and scathing wit.
This novel is a fresh and thoughtful perspective of the American immigrant story. It’s about the scrappy woman who overcomes countless hurdles to achieve great business success and even fame. Lillian becomes so popular with the public she even hosts a children’s Sunday morning television program in the ‘70s. Gilman’s true gifts as a writer show through in Lillian’s character development. Gilman said she wanted to create a great female anti-hero and she has succeeded in Lillian. A young, poor girl doesn’t get rich and famous without making some enemies along the way. When Lillian gets into trouble with the IRS, the dark side of her story becomes public. Once the tabloids get a hold of her, she can’t rely on her usual charm or even ruthlessness. Despite it all, the reader will root for Lillian to come out on top, because we understand her so well even if we don’t like everything about her.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is an entertaining novel with interesting historical perspective, a funny but hard-edged protagonist and lots of ice cream. Lillian is part Tom Carvel, part Bob McAllister and part Leona Helmsley, and all attitude. This is a very entertaining story and a character you will not soon forget. I recommend reading it by the lake with a maple creemee in hand!