Jell-O might be the glistening dish of picnics and potlucks, but for Allie Rowbottom — a descendant of the Jell-O fortune — it’s both a burden and an abyss. 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…
“Jell-O Girls” could have easily devoted itself to the tragic fates of those heirs, or what the family called “the Jell-O curse.” A number of Rowbottom’s relatives succumbed to alcoholism and suicide. More money meant more money, but sometimes it also meant more to lose. A great-uncle who divorced and mismanaged his way out of his own fortune threw himself from the roof of a Sheraton hotel.
But Rowbottom’s interest is in the women of her title — namely, herself, her mother and her grandmother…
Jell-O, meanwhile, gets the full semiotics treatment, as Rowbottom shows how it went from a modern, scientific foodstuff to a relic of soul-killing suburbia. 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.
It would be interesting to read more about how this connection was made. At the least, I might expect to find:
- The rise of mass-produced goods, including food items, and suburbanization. Even as suburban homes went up in mass-produced subdivisions, the goods that filled these houses also often came out of an emerging mass-production economy. Cars, household appliances, furnishings, and food.
- The lives of women in suburbs. Numerous scholars have addressed the limited opportunities for women in many mass-produced suburbs as well as the numerous depictions of traditional family life in suburbs.
- The banality of Jell-O and the conformity and/or dullness of suburbia. Critics might argue the limited substance of Jell-O matches the boringness of the suburbs.
At the same time, if I had to create a list of consumer objects I would associate with suburbia, I do not think Jell-O would even enter my mind.