Editor's choice: 'The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street'

From this opening line — "We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me" — it's clear that this is not a familiar immigration novel of displacement, dislocation and assimilation.

Disagree? As Lillian Dunkle says: "So sue me."

That refrain punctuates this smart, darkly comic story, which is perfect for a summer weekend read. It is the first work of fiction by Susan Jane Gilman, an irreverent writer who won me over a decade ago with her sharp memoir "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless."

The arc of "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street" is the transformation of Malka Treynovsky from Vishnev to Lillian Dunkle, the Ice Cream Queen of America, and it is no earnest Horatio Alger story. Or, to quote Lillian Dunkle herself: "Well, let me tell you, darlings: immigrant, schmimmigrant."

This is a big-hearted novel, with readers rooting for characters that they would detest in another writer's hands. When we meet Lillian Dunkle, she has mistreated just about everyone in her life, has become a drunken shopaholic with too many Chanel suits. She tucked a little dog in her purse — think Leona Helmsley — and is arrested and found guilty of tax evasion.

Brassy irreverence was part of Malka's DNA, and from the beginning her mother would wallop her to stop with the little girl's annoying wisenheimer business. "'The mouth on that one," her mother would cluck, "'it's going to cause us nothing but tsuris.'"

Gilman understands the great sweep of the 20th century, from life in a tenement on Orchard Street, to Italian Communists, Joe McCarthy, McDonald's franchises, suburbanization and, of course, the history of ice cream in America. She blends it in a delicious swirl, and adds a topical spin.

Best of all is Gilman's skewer of the fame machine, from the satellite trucks outside her home to the Vanity Fair article in which her longtime friend Spreckles the Clown (from weekly television show "Sunday Morning Funhouse") claims she is no Ice Cream Queen but more like the Ice Cream Mussolini — and all that's "missing is a balcony and a pair of epaulets."

True, she did punch a little girl on live television, but as Lillian Dunkle points out, it was only a local station, and who watched television at 7 a.m. on Sunday? Furthermore, she protests, "Darlings, you try hosting a kiddie show for thirteen ... years."

Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor at large

"The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street"

By Susan Jane Gilman

Grand Central Publishing, 506 pages, $26

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