A Family History
In the states, JELL-O is an iconic brand. Everyone knows the red and white boxes, and the joyful, slightly weird, wobbly confection inside. It’s a staple in summer, at hospitals, during holiday parties, and more. While I know the brand, itself, doesn’t travel – I do believe this stirring, sad memoir, will. Because JELL-O was an empire created from a stolen recipe, and a fractured family.
In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, catapulting Allie's family into super wealth and making prosperous the small town of LeRoy, New York, where the dessert was manufactured. In 2014, 115 years after the deal was struck, twenty-eight-year-old Allie faced the early loss of her middle-aged mother Mary. After years of violent ailment under Allie's close care, Mary died at 45 years old, the very same age her own mother Midge died. Midge's and Mary's illness fit neatly into a history of suicides, cancer, alcoholism and mysterious illnesses the Jell-O family considers part and parcel of a curse that, according to family mythology, has haunted them since Jell-O's purchase. To combat the curse and the cancer it carried with it, Mary worked obsessively for years on a memoir she hoped would express not only her personal illness, but also an illness she saw as collective to the female experience. In 2012, approaching death, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her work, in the hope that she might write what she could not. JELL-O GIRLS is the liberation of that story.
Moving through scenes from her own childhood, as well as those from her mother and her grandmother, Allie examines the history of mothers and daughters in her family, and sets them against the stifling standards that Jell-O, their primary source of livelihood, imposed upon them.
This is a book about many things: one of the most successful marketing campaigns in American history, the evolving role of women in the 20th century and an examination of our changing attitudes toward illness. But most of all, this is a stirring mother-daughter story that reads like a novel.
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