'The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street' is a sweeping novel with a sense of humor

Susan Jane Gilman's latest novel sometimes has too much exposition, but the story of Lillian Dunkle, a founder of soft-serve ice cream, is a refreshing read.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street By Susan Jane Gilman Grand Central Publishing 512 pp.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by Lillian Dunkle.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is, according to creator Susan Jane Gilman, a cross between “Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley,” with the former’s survival instincts and the latter’s shopping habits.

Everything about Lillian is made up – except her limp.

Lillian, the undisputed star of the first novel by Gilman (“Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress”), is a cheerfully unreliable narrator who never lets the truth get in the way of her business instincts. For example, her most-quoted story about coming to America from Russia is seeing the Statue of Liberty, to which she says she prayed to every night for months. The only trouble is: it didn’t happen. The only thing she actually remembers about New York Harbor is the man next to her crying and her sister losing her hat.

“[My] legendary first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty? So sue me: I made it up,” she confides to readers, whom she calls “Darlings.”

When we first meet her, Lillian is having a tough year: She’s been arrested (wrongfully, she says), is on trial for tax evasion, and has become a favorite target of the paparazzi for slapping a child on live TV. But Lillian’s been through worse, as readers soon learn. And she is nothing if not a survivor.

Dunkle was born Malka Treynovsky in the early years of the 20th century (she isn’t exactly sure when her birthday is) and arrived in America in 1913 under false pretenses, where her family is christened Bialystoker at Ellis Island. The plan had been to travel from their shtetl to South Africa, where Malka’s uncle could have helped them. Instead, her gambler father decided to switch the tickets – without telling his quarantined wife, who blamed five-year-old Malka for not stopping him.

“Our family didn’t have a penny when we stepped off the boat. But whose did? The people who arrived in American with money, their stories aren’t interesting,” she says.

There was nothing picturesque or exotic about life on the Lower East Side, Malka tells readers – although the heat and smell were certainly memorable. The family can barely afford to rent one room from the man the parents work for.

Her mother tells her children that if they don’t earn money, they won’t eat. The older girls get jobs as maids and basters in sewing factories, while Malka and her prettier sister, Flora, run errands for neighbors in the tenement and sing and dance for coins. (They’ll also stop singing if people pay them, which sometimes proves more lucrative.) Her dad soon heads for greener pastures, abandoning the family to illness and poverty. Three months later, Malka gets run over by a horse-drawn ices cart. Unwilling to feed a crippled child, her mother abandons her at Beth Israel Hospital (which at the time was not the world-class facility it is today, Lillian would have you know).

Guilt-stricken, the ices seller, Salvatore Dinello, takes in Malka, who converts to Roman Catholicism to make her adoptive family happy and re-christens herself Lillian.

“If I’d been crippled by, say, a rag man or a coal vendor, I would never become Lillian Dunkle, as the world knows her today,” Lillian says. “Certainly, I would never have become a legend at all.”

Lillian soon learns to make the most of her innate shrewdness and ability to work hard, outlasting grief, treachery, and accidents. While her limp, outsider status, and lack of beauty make her adopted mother think that college is the best possible course for her future, Lillian sets her sights on the best-looking man she’s ever seen: one Albert Dunkle, whose dyslexia and stutter make him far less arrogant than his Errol-Flynn brand of handsomeness might indicate.

A car accident on a hot day ends up making the Dunkles’ fortunes. Lillian and Albert invent soft-serve ice cream after their entire inventory melts before they can get their generator hooked up (a la the real-life Tom Carvel). World War II and the invention of television bring with them new chances for charity and patriotism – or business opportunities, depending on one’s view. Lillian clearly has acting chops, since she pulls off playing a sweet, motherly lady with a peppermint-striped cane for 13 years on a Sunday morning kids’ show before it all comes crashing down. Too late, she realizes that her ruthlessness and ambition have deprived her of, well, some of the sweeter things in life.

Gilman clearly did a tremendous amount of research into the birth of the ice cream industry in the US. Unfortunately, she sometimes can’t resist the urge to cram in one more fact or nugget of information, falling out of Lillian’s distinctive voice and into generic exposition. And secondary characters have a tendency to disappear and reappear, seemingly on a whim.

But outweighing these occasional flaws is the novel’s sweep, sense of humor, and Lillian herself, who through sheer force of will turns herself into a businesswoman to be reckoned with – an alcoholic, kleptomaniacal one with a tendency to bulldoze over her loved ones, to be sure – but an unforgettable one.

“The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” is as refreshing a summertime treat as its namesake – with just enough salt to keep things from getting too cloying.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.

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