Little Malka Treynovsky and her family immigrate to the US by mistake. Well, it's a mistake for Malka's mother and siblings but her father preferred it to South Africa, where the rest of his wife's family had fled from Russia in the early 1900s, and Malka has always felt more special to her father than to her mother so she abets him in the switch, earning her mother's undying resentment. The Treynovskys are rechristened the Bialystokers, land in New York City and end up in the tenements with so many other immigrants. The family suffers many misfortunes, always short on money and barely making ends meet. When Malka's Papa deserts the family, the four young girls must find a way to help supplement their mother's meager income and it is then that Malka becomes an entrepreneur. But she is not destined to stay with her cold and angry mother and her beloved sisters. She is run over in the street by a horse-drawn cart, suffers a terrible injury to her leg, and when she is subsequently abandoned at the pauper's hospital where she's taken to recover, the man who ran her over, Salvatore Dinello, takes her home to his warm, Catholic Italian family. Working at Dinello's Ices, she is introduced to the business of ice cream, even if she is never quite accepted wholeheartedly by all members of the family. In fact, not being a real Dinello sets her on the path to enormous success, bitter revenge, constant confrontations, and the need to prove herself as she and her husband eventually build up Dunkle's Ice Cream to be a manufacturer to be reckoned with.
Told by Lillian in the 1980s as she faces an indictment or two for bad behavior and tax evasion, the novel is a chronicle of a spectacular rags to riches story starting back at the turn of the century. The story is told directly to the reader, with Lillian addressing the reader from time to time, almost daring the reader to judge her. She should embody the American Dream: a poor Russian Jewish immigrant who came to this country with little besides the coat on her back who makes it to the opulent world of the rich and famous. But Lillian is a cantankerous, unrepentant grump. She's abrasive and conniving and driven. But if Lillian is sometimes overbearing and incredibly unlikable, she's also a survivor. And feisty. She's got a razor sharp business acumen, at least for many years, and she's not afraid of obstacles. With an early life characterized by poverty, lacking both money and of love, the reader can find just enough sympathy with her caustic character to keep reading her story. Gilman's drawing of early twentieth century New York City, its immigrant neighborhoods, and the smelly, crowded reality of them is very well done. Given that the novel spans eighty or so years, there is a lot of ground to cover and occasionally it bogs down in all of the historical eras it must pass through. Lillian's character can be a bit stereotypically Jewish, especially in her speech and she is often either angry or unhappy so there's little cheer, even in success. That Gilman took the basic (although quite different) origin story for Carvel Ice Cream and turned it into this tale of the American Dream and its costs is fascinating indeed. She is a skilled writer and in the end, this is a complex and involved saga spanning many decades, amazing inventions, and historically significant events.