REVIEW: “JELL-O Girls” by Allie Rowbottom

Perhaps the most resonant line in Allie Rowbottom’s “JELL-O Girls” is the following: “We are all connected, we women, we JELL-O girls, bound by a web of common experience.” It could be true that all women are connected by some web of common experience, however, throughout the shifting focuses in Rowbottom’s memoir, it’s unclear how universally that “we” extends.

The book is an attempt by Rowbottom to explore the “JELL-O curse” that plagues her family, whose fate became intertwined with that of the popular dessert in 1899 when a great-great-great uncle bought the patent from its inventor. The curse is initially described to Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, by a cousin as the pattern of deaths before 40 in every male in the family. However, it appears that a more dire curse lurks among the family’s women.

This curse is initially described as money, then patriarchy, then silence, before manifesting itself in a physical form of sickness, as both Mary and her mother, Midge, fight cancer. The rapid shifts between each of these potential curses would prove less muddling had the story remained safely in the confines of a family history. Instead, Rowbottom opens her focus to argue the curse began to affect lives with a looser connection to America’s Favorite Dessert.

Enter the LeRoy girls, a group of young women from LeRoy, New York whose mysterious fits of twitching puzzled and captivated the nation in 2011. As LeRoy served not only as the birthplace of JELL-O but also the gravesite of the nation’s first female college, Ingham University, it would seem the curse of a patriarchal community might account for their illnesses. However, when the curse takes another sudden shift to focus on conversion disorder, a somewhat fancier name for female hysteria, the building universal common experience of oppression becomes somewhat more stratified.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking vignettes from the book are the timelines of JELL-O’s history and how the brand capitalized on the enforced role of the domestic housewife, the importance of maintaining an appealing figure and the objectification that accompanies JELL-O wrestling and JELL-O shots. In following this shifting perspective of the “perfect woman” from the turn of the century caretaker to the “power woman” era of the 80s and 90s, a third sphere of JELL-O girls appears: those throughout history who have been made to conform, to keep silent, to please others before herself.

Which brings us to the fourth sphere of JELL-O girls that Rowbottom touches upon briefly but for the most part ignores: the current generation of young women who have observed movements like #metoo and March for Our Lives and have learned how to speak out. This buildup of women’s history through the wobbly, red-dyed lens of JELL-O seems to promise a connection to this generation of women. As a quiet family memoir, the book satisfies as an extension and completion of a memoir started by Mary before her death in 2015 in an attempt to finally speak out, to rid herself of the curse. However, as a cultural history, the book falls short, missing a critical moment to connect to the JELL-O girls of the present, who face new curses every day to define and vanquish.

But, of course, this is just my opinion. I’d love to hear yours! Have you read “JELL-O Girls”? Please let me know your thoughts below!