A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Grand Central Publishing in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
I’m not sure why I went into this book thinking I’d be reading a light summer-y “chick lit” type story. (Is it the cover? It’s not like I don’t have a synopsis available! Haha!) Instead,The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a dense, 512-page historical saga that spans the 1910s to the 1980s, taking in everything from Ellis Island to Studio 54, and all in the name of ice cream.
At its heart, Ice Cream Queen is the story of Malka Treynovsky, a little girl who immigrates to America with her family and finds herself, like most Russian Jewish immigrants, in the midst of a terrible struggle to survive. Through a series of strange incidents and accidents, (and a great deal of gutsiness, intelligence, and hard work) she becomes Lillian Dunkle, owner of an enormous ice cream empire that reaches its peak in the post-WWII era. If it sounds gilded and lovely, it is–sometimes. Gilman’s depiction of Lillian’s life is, at times, brutally honest, and she doesn’t shy away from showing us her protagonist’s darker side.
Lillian is, in turns, difficult, shrewd, brilliant, conniving, vulnerable, and manipulative, but most of her behavior comes from a place we understand, having read about her past. I complain a lot, in reviewing novels, about not being able to connect to characters or understand their motivation–as far as psychology goes, Ice Cream Queen is superb. Lillian may not always be likable, but she is entirely lifelike.
As far as the novel, itself, goes, I can’t be sure whether I enjoyed it or not. I wanted to read to the end–I had to know what happened to Lillian. The writing was absolutely compelling, and expertly crafted. Gilman’s sense of voice and atmosphere are focused and unmuddied, and her characters are varied and interesting. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Bert, as Lillian does. I may have to continue to think about the book, though, and what I took away from the story. I’m not yet sure what I feel its message was. But in all, that’s not a bad thing.
2.5 stars. A fair bit of mild language, including a couple of rippers from one character. A couple of scenes involve drug use. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street releases today!
First Line: “We’d been in America just three months when the horse ran over me.”