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.
Though the book begins inauspiciously with stock portraits and lengthy exposition at the expense of robust dialogue—a problem common in narratives that rely too heavily on received history rather than authorial imagination—it improves markedly as the story advances to the present day, gaining heat and aesthetic acuity until, by the end, analogies are often striking and the emotion of the denouement well-earned ... this is a capable, highly readable book on a topic that deserves more attention ... Though superwealth and misogyny are ready subjects, Jell-O Girls is most interesting as an examination of the psychological sources of illness and the outsize fertility of unhealed trauma, which inevitably begets more trauma, creating a lineage of what seems like cellular-borne pain ... Rowbottom touches only briefly on Freud and conversion disorders, and this is an opportunity lost for both reader and author ... Though Rowbottom’s memoir is an earnest and laudable attempt to return us and her to wholeness, most will need to go further to bridge that most masculinist invention—the psyche/soma split—to regain the space that, generation after generation, has been made into a battleground: the female mindbody.
With crystalline language and a novelist’s measured eye for story, Rowbottom explores Jell-O’s hold over her family, weaving together a history of the sugary treat: a family history full of alcoholism, mental illness, sexual abuse, and ill-fated choices, as well as a cultural history of the domestic-science movement ... In a lesser writer’s hands, this endeavor might have ended in a sloppy mess, but Rowbottom’s skill keeps all of her ingredients remarkably well-contained ... The idea of molding—as in how to shape the ideal salad and how to shape the ideal woman—is a strong theme throughout the book. Even before Mary’s late-night revelation while reading Adrienne Rich that the curse is actually the patriarchy, the reader can see the feminist lens informing the book ... Rowbottom gives patriarchy due diligence as a matter of course, but this is no strident, second-wave manifesto as it might have been if left in her mother’s hands. Jell-O Girls is too subtle for that ... Through careful research, Rowbottom reveals the company’s long history of exerting influence on the female body and role in society ... Jell-O Girls is hard to put down, effortlessly weaving together personal history, family history, cultural history, and more. Rowbottom presents her narrative with the clarity of an outsider, acting as a journalist would ... That Rowbottom could create a work of such beauty and meaning from her uneasy inheritance is truly an act of redemption.