One of the marks of a good novel is its ability to make the reader wonder if the story is true. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman contains enough historical accuracy and detail to make me believe it. Protagonist Lillian Dunkle, nee Malka Trynovsky, a child of a hustler for a father and am embittered mother, arrives with her family from Russia to live in squalor in the lower east side. Her father runs off shortly after their arrival, and Malka suffers a crippling injury after being hit by an ice cream vendor. Abandoned by her mother, Malka faces being sent to an orphanage, but the Italian ice cream vendor, Salvatore Dinello, brings her to live with his family, where she takes the name Lillian Dinello. The Dinellos use her as a laborer for their business, her limp causes her to be bullied, and her looks do not turn the heads of possible suitors. Until she meets fellow immigrant Albert Dunkle, for whom she is hired to transcribe letters.
Like Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, Lillian does not play the pity party, yet the reader wishes people treated young Lillian better. But the abuse and betrayals she suffers only foster Lillian’s tenacity, allowing Lillian and her hapless husband to become ice cream emperors in the highly competitive world of confections. Over the years Lillian morphs into a cross between Leona Helmsley and Joan Rivers, and in business and her personal life Lillian is often ruthless and conniving, yet the reader still roots for her. Her relationships with her Adonis handsome husband, her pot smoking grandson Jason, and her purse-sized dog reveal Lillian’s soft spots, and by the time Lillian’s empire collapses around her, the reader wishes for the best possible outcome.