Jell-O Girls: A Family History

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Jell-O Girls: A Family History
288 pages; Little, Brown and Company
Watch it glimmer, see it shimmer, cool and fruity, Jell-O...if you're an American of a certain age, that jingle will come to mind unbidden as you open Allie Rowbottom's devastating memoir, Jell-O Girls: A Family History (Little, Brown). For Rowbottom and her mother, Mary, that upbeat tune was the stuff of nightmares, a reminder of the destructive influence "the slipperiest sweet" held over their clan for generations, even as it brought them vast wealth. They called it the Jell-O curse, and in her book, which doubles as a social history of the influential brand and its "patriarchal" messaging, Rowbottom finally shakes its spell. 

Rowbottom is a descendant of Orator Francis Woodward, an entrepreneur who bought the Jell-O patent for $450 in 1899 and converted the confection into an icon of American housewifery, while transforming the town of LeRoy, New York, into a paragon of prosperity. The local river even changed color every week according to which flavor was in the vats (strawberry, raspberry, orange, or lemon), and the townsfolk floated in job security like fruit suspended in rosy gelatin. "The American dream!" Rowbottom writes. "Conveyor belts of cash!" But, as her mother warned her from earliest childhood, "there's always a dark side to the light." 

That dark side was the existential boredom, alcoholism, and early deaths that plagued the men of her family. For the female relatives, it was a corrosive subservience that imposed "silence, and the sickness silence plants, like seeds, inside women." Mary blamed it for the cancer that killed her mother, Midge, in 1959, when Mary was a teenager, and for her own, which was diagnosed in the 1990s, when Rowbottom was 4. Fighting the disease, Mary struggled to teach her child to break free of the powerlessness that had entrapped her. 

The mother-daughter portrait that emerges here melts the heart. Mary's cancer returned when Rowbottom was a college freshman. Over the next decade, the author cared for her while attending grad school, falling in love, getting married—in her mother's backyard. By then, there was only one food Mary could keep down, which her daughter spoon-fed to her, ruefully and lovingly: Jell-O.
— Liesl Schillinger