Like so many readers, I have loved Susan Jane Gilman’s non-fiction, and I was every bit as thrilled, if not more so, with her first novel. This is exactly the kind of historical fiction I love to read — a story that plunges you into the world of the past, bringing the reader to a very specific time and place and letting it all unfold through the eyes of an unforgettable character. That character, Lillian Dunkle, narrates the novel when she’s in her seventies, an American icon under fire, but her story stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century when she was born with a different name in a different country.
Lillian — or Malka, as she was when her family came to America in 1913 — lived through the most hardscrabble New York Jewish immigrant experience imaginable, until a freak accident set her life on a different path. That path included a different immigrant community — Italian Catholics who took her in and raised her as almost, but not quite, one of their own. From them, she learns the secrets of making Italian ices and gelato, and as young Lillian’s turbulent, eventful life unfolds, so does the history of ice cream — and the history of America, with which ice cream travels hand in hand.
Lillian is not always a likable narrator. By the time the novel opens, she has enjoyed decades of fame and fortune with her beloved husband Bert as the inventor, owner and public face of Dunkle’s Ice Cream. But in her seventies she is widowed, drinking too much, compulsively shopping, indicted for tax evasion and under attack. As she narrates her story in first person, Lillian is by no means always admirable, but she is a character I was able to completely inhabit and see the world through her eyes. This was the first book I finished reading in 2015 and I recommend it very highly to lovers of historical fiction.