This novel is what you’d get if you crossed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Citizen Kane. And added lots of delicious ice cream.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street chronicles the rise to power of one Lillian Dunkle, who becomes one of the most formidable business owners in America with her franchise chain of ice cream stores in the middle part of the 20th century. Lillian, born Malka, emigrated to New York with her family in 1913. Not long afterward, she was crippled in a street accident and abandoned by her mother. Afterward she is taken in by an Italian family with an ice cream business, setting her on the road to fame.
And infamy, as it turned out. As the novel opens, Lillian is elderly and in some legal trouble, and she wants to set the record straight about her history, her troubles, and why she isn’t to blame for anything. The story is nicely constructed in terms of callbacks and cohesion, so I won’t give away too much about the particulars. Suffice it to say that she lives the American Dream. Whether that’s a good thing or not is sort of open to question.
Here is my very favorite quote from the novel, edited for length:
“Over fifty years of my life I have dedicated to ice cream. And truly, darlings, to the United States of America. With the cartoon characters and ‘fun flavors’ I’ve created, I have injected joy, whimsy, and sweetness into a brutal and treacherous world…And need I remind you, it was me, Lillian Dunkle, who helped advance the cure for polio…I have helped feed and transform America….
…And yet once, just once, I accidentally punch a small child on live television. And suddenly, that is all people care to know.”
That quote tells you all you need to know about the sort of narrator you’re dealing with here. Personally, I liked Lillian Dunkle a lot, all her faults included. She’s conniving, she’s ruthless, she’s jealous, she’s a drunk. But she is also funny and savvy and supremely talented. I have a soft spot for unreliable and unlikeable narrators when they’re done well, though, so your mileage on this might vary.
For instance, one review I noticed on Goodreads criticized Lillian’s characterization, saying something along the lines of “She’s every negative stereotype of women in power.” While I can see the reviewer’s point, I disagree. Lillian Dunkle is ANYBODY, in business or not, who is hungry for power, is tough and talented, and has no real regard for others. Seriously, she bears a lot of resemblance to Charles Foster Kane--denied a childhood and unable to make many deep connections (her husband seems to be the exception, but even then there’s a narcissistic quality to her love for him), ruthless in her drive to get to the top, remorseless in the devices she uses. You might not like her, but you at least understand her. And she’s a heck of a lot of fun.
The tone of the book is very engaging. Lillian talks at you and you can’t help but listen, darkly amused at some points and moved at others. There’s a sweeping sort of quality to the story as well, since Lillian covers so much ground in her life in such a short time. She goes back and forth, talking about her childhood and then coming back to the present, all with the feel of someone actually writing everything down as she thinks of it.
And the ice cream. Oh, the descriptions of ice cream. Be warned, you will want all manner of frozen treats after reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about the history of ice cream manufacturing, but I did. Gilman even includes some recommended titles at the end of the book.
For readalikes, definitely try A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith if you haven’t read it already. While the setting, tone, and narrative voice are quite different, you’ll see lots of similarities as far as the depictions of New York and of the immigrant experience go. Myla Goldberg’s fun, moving, and inventive Wickett’s Remedy, about an Irish shopgirl determined to get out of her Boston neighborhood, would also be a good choice. If you like the style and don’t mind a time-jump to Shakespeare’s England, the extremely funny and strangely poignant The Late Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Nye could be a good choice. The narrator of that one is remembering his time with Shakespeare from his tiny attic room, writing a chapter for every memento that he’s kept through the years.
If none of those titles grab your attention, you can do what I did: Settle in with a pint of your favorite ice cream (and a double gin and tonic) and watch Citizen Kane. Trust me, darlings. It’s as good a “readalike” experience for this book as any.