A memoir about one of America's most iconic products told from one of the inheritors of the massive wealth it's created since 1899, when the author's relative bought the patent and perhaps got more than he bargained for—a family "cursed" by tragedy and generations of women molded by the company's patriarchal advertisements.
In Jell-O Girls, she weaves together her family history and the story of the classic American dessert to produce a book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes. Despite its title, this isn’t a bland tale that goes down easy; Jell-O Girls is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake. It’s also the kind of project that could turn unwieldy and even unbearable in the wrong hands. But Rowbottom has the literary skills and the analytical cunning to pull it off. Like a novelist, she can imagine herself into the emotional lives of others, while connecting her story and theirs to a larger narrative of cultural upheaval ... Rowbottom traces all of this with a sure hand, drawing details from her mother’s unfinished memoir and shaping them so that they make sense in her own. Much of the writing is lush yet alert to specifics ... As sharp as her insights often are, this is a book in which Everything Signifies. Even a digression about the catacombs in an Italian monastery includes some Jell-O symbolism. You occasionally want to tell Rowbottom to ease up: Sometimes a Jell-O mold is just a Jell-O mold. The product history is mostly illuminating, though, as Rowbottom shows how the brand tried to keep up with the times ... Rowbottom’s book is too rich and too singular to reduce to a tidy argument.
With candid and unflinching descriptions connecting the history of Jell-O, feminism and her mother's unpublished writings, Rowbottom makes a case that the curse [of the Jell-O family] wasn't physical, emotional or confined exclusively to their family. (Pearle Wait, the original holder of the Jell-O patent, went bankrupt shortly after the sale.) Instead, the curse was a repressive societal attitude 'reflected by the messages about women and their worth that her family sold with each box of Jell-O' ... Jell-O Girls is a fascinating family history combined with an examination of an iconic brand, one with double-sided messages of domesticity and nurturing that have influenced generations of women. By sharing her family's most personal tragedies, Rowbottom shows the interconnectivity among women and the continued need for amplification of their voices.
There are devastating, disturbing and dark sequences here, often powerfully written and at other times weakened by repetition and disjointed phrasing. The author explores the idea that the patriarchal messages offered by Jell-O ads so bound women in the insular, conservative small town of Le Roy that it affected women negatively ... Readers who are interested in mother/daughter relationships and stories of addiction and recovery may be particularly interested ... But what is to be believed? Sweeping generalizations and inaccuracies make stories in this book questionable ... For me, the book never connected the dots enough to blame a variety of illnesses and cancers, covering a 60-year period, on the remembered history of a food product, its message and its town. Further, it is irresponsible of authors to make assessments of communities on short contact with them, either as journalists or as memoirists.