Book Report: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: A NovelThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: A Novel by Susan Jane Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So sue me darlings; I didn’t love it.
A good story about a young girl, Malva Treynovsky emigrating from Russia in the early 1900’s for… where? They start to go for South Africa but thanks to the father and a little unwitting help from Malva they end up in New York. She goes from being crippled and abandoned due to a street accident to being a very, very rich woman in the early 1980s as the queen of an ice cream empire.

I admit to having had a romantic view of immigrant life in New York in the early 20th century. That view has been thoroughly dispelled. The best part of the book is the unrelenting look at the squalor and poverty of that time. In Russia there was the prospect of murder at the hands of the ruling class during the pogroms. In New York City there was the prospect of death because you just couldn’t make it: you get sick or injured and there is no hand up. When (if) you read “The Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin you’ll have a better appreciation of Theodore Roosevelt crusading efforts to make life better in the tenements.

It’s said that money can’t buy happiness; this novel shows how true that can me. Malva becomes Lillian Dunkle and though she marries her sweetheart and becomes impossibly rich, she is never really happy. Indeed, she is miserable and makes most people around her miserable. I want to be careful and not rate the book lower just because the protagonist is so disagreeable. My biggest problem with the book is that the Jewish/Italian/New York dialect comes and goes; we get way too much “so sue me, darling” juxtaposed with otherwise 6:00 news anchor language.

In the end, this is an okay summer read to catch the arc of American history from pre-World War I through the Reagan administration. You’ll learn some things about the entrepreneurship spirit as well as ice cream making.

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