The Ice-cream Makers by Ernest Van der Kwast

Review published on July 21, 2016.

Rather a sad story about the demands family tradition makes on individual members and the repercussions down the generations. For over a hundred years the Talamini family has spent winters in their native Italy and summers making and selling ice-cream in Rotterdam – the hours are long, the work physically exhausting and repetitive. Giovanni and his younger brother Luca grow up in the knowledge that their father expects to hand the business on to them. Giovanni is having none of this, enrols in a literature degree course in Amsterdam and embarks on a jet-setting career in publishing and organising literary festivals, leaving the burden of family expectation to rest on Luca alone.

Luca throws himself into ice-cream making with all his energy, wowing ever-increasing numbers of customers with innovative flavours and winning the girl he and his brother had both been in love with since childhood. But he harbours deep and lasting resentment of Giovanni for selfishly pursuing his own ends and leaving him behind. Giovanni, for his part, never ceases to feel guilty, but worse is to come when Luca has a son and Giovanni can only look at his happiness enviously and from afar, the life he chose having denied him a family. Towards the end of the story, the dynamic shifts again as Luca’s son grows up to rebel against becoming the latest Talamini ice-cream maker.

We are given a great deal to think about here and I think reading groups would enjoy it. Did following in the family business ruin the father Guiseppe’s life? Certainly he was passionately interested in other things but largely denied them all through his working life – once he has done his duty, passed the buck and retired, his antipathy for everything ice-cream related surfaces vehemently. What are we to make of the women in the family – matriarchs or drudges?

There were certain sections of the book where I found my eyes skimming down the pages. For one thing, huge amounts of detail about ice-cream making and combinations of ingredients to make surprising flavours will appeal to some readers more than they did to me. I also found myself frustrated that the catalogue of Giovanni’s festival destinations and hotel rooms intruded on the action. Not that there is all that much action really, the novel’s focus is on family interaction and emotional strain, and Ernest Van der Kwast has explored this superbly. As an added bonus, there are some lovely poetry quotations throughout, always a delight.

Sue Broom 3/4

The Ice-cream Makers by Ernest Van der Kwast
Scribe 978-1-925228-43-4 pbk July 2016

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