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Book Review: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman (5/5)

27 Jun

I wish I could remember who recommended this book to me so I could thank him. I think it was another blogger so thank you, fellow bloggers, for this awesome recommendation. I loved the time period and I adored the main character. This book was funny and a great example of a strong voice.

Cover Image via Goodreads

Cover Image via Goodreads

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1913, little Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family. Bedazzled by tales of gold and movie stardom, she tricks them into buying tickets for America. Yet no sooner do they land on the squalid Lower East Side of Manhattan, than Malka is crippled and abandoned in the street.

Taken in by a tough-loving Italian ices peddler, she manages to survive through cunning and inventiveness. As she learns the secrets of his trade, she begins to shape her own destiny. She falls in love with a gorgeous, illiterate radical named Albert, and they set off across America in an ice cream truck. Slowly, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen” — doyenne of an empire of ice cream franchises and a celebrated television personality.

Lillian’s rise to fame and fortune spans seventy years and is inextricably linked to the course of American history itself, from Prohibition to the disco days of Studio 54. Yet Lillian Dunkle is nothing like the whimsical motherly persona she crafts for herself in the media. Conniving, profane, and irreverent, she is a supremely complex woman who prefers a good stiff drink to an ice cream cone. And when her past begins to catch up with her, everything she has spent her life building is at stake.

Lillian was amazing. I loved her sarcastic comments and brutally honest dialogue. She and Bert were great together and the flash-forwards to the present with Jason always made me laugh. That’s not at all to say Lillian’s life was easy. She had to work really hard for what she got and overcome a lot of stereotyping because of her disability. She was really strong though I didn’t like how she’d bend the truth to get what she wanted sometimes. The way she addressed her reader as ‘darlings’ drew me in and I really liked the way Gilman gave Lil a strong voice. She had catch phrases on her commercials so it only made sense she used those catch phrases when speaking to her audience.

Lillian was very real to me. She reminded me a lot of business cases I’ve read through my school career about good businesses gone bad. I loved how her grief made her do some dumb things and she had to pay for them. She was flawed to be sure, but she was smart, just not in the traditional sense: more cunning than smart. I didn’t like how she tricked Bert and had Isaac to keep him at home. I thought that was too manipulative.

Of course, Lil was my favorite character. The only other character we get a lot of detail on is Bert and while he’s lovable, he’s a sidekick in Lillian’s story. Lil does some stupid things, but she’s always able to explain why. She does everything for a good, motivated reason which makes her very likable by the reader. She’s colorful and flawed and sometimes she redeems herself and sometimes she doesn’t but she rarely apologizes for it.

I related to Lil and Bert when they were first starting their business. My husband and I got married while he was student teaching and I was in a new job that wasn’t motivating me. We were tight with money and we ate the same things day after day because we’d bought it in bulk. It was fun to see that being poor newlyweds hasn’t changed much since the 30s.

Susan Jane GIlman Image via the author's website

Susan Jane Gilman
Image via the author’s website

Lil and Bert starting their business was my favorite part of the book. Bert was such an engineer but his dyslexia (I’m fairly sure that’s what we’d call it nowadays) kept him from being educated. He and Lil hit a lucky break when the got their first store from the knickknack owners, but it was exactly what they needed and they had to make the best of it. Lil was smart realizing how America was going to change with freeways and car culture. The two made a great team and it was fun to watch it take off.

Minor spoiler alert here, so skip this paragraph to miss it. It was hard to keep reading the story after Bert died. You have an inkling from the beginning that he was dead and not just ‘gone from the picture,’ but finally getting around to how it happened was heartbreaking. I think about what I’d do if I lost a family member or I passed away after a fight and I hate to leave when there are bad words between me and someone I love. It was worse seeing how Lillian fell apart after Bert was gone. As much as she spoke about being the brains of the business and secretly running the whole thing, she needed Bert and she didn’t realize that until he was gone.

I was nervous when I saw that the book was narrated by the author. I’ve never seen a fiction audiobook narrated by the author before. I think Gilman did it because no one else could tackle the Italian-Jewish grandmother voice she was going for. It was great! Gilman might not have a future in narrating unless there’s a big demand for Italian grandmothers speaking in Yiddish. She helped give Lillian the voice she needed.

Lillian had to learn the value of family in a hard way. She lost Bert and was devastated by it, not realizing that it would hurt her so much. She’d lost her parents, brother, and sisters but didn’t realize how much it could hurt her to lose another. Even after her father hurt her, it was hard for Lillian to drop him. I think the worst part about going to jail for her would be leaving Jason for an extended length of time. She came to realize that her family was important to her, even when she was angry with Isaac because they wouldn’t leave her. That’s why Flora was so important.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book is one of the best examples of voice I’ve read in a long time. Lillian has a distinct way of speaking that’s very specific to her and it’s wonderful to read it. You can hear someone telling you the story (even if it wasn’t an audiobook, I think I would) and it sounds like they’re sitting next to you. I published a short story where I had to work on this and it’s much harder than it sounds!

A fun read and a great book. A full 5 out of 5 Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Susan Jane Gilman- The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (2014) | My Book Bag
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