Where to begin. As the book, ostensibly, is billed as a memoir, I’ll begin with the author’s lineage.
In the beginning, Benjamin Hartwell “begat” two lovely daughters, Clara and Edith. Clara would grow up to become our author, Allie Rowbottom’s great-grandmother. Edith would become the heiress of a huge Jello fortune after marrying into the Woodward family and surviving her husband, Ernest.
Ernest’s story begins with his father, a man with a fancy name of Orator F. Woodward. who spawned six children and supported his family as a manufacturer and selling of a variety of items that included composition balls used by marksmen in target practice. The family lived in the small town of LeRoy, New York where in 1897, a local carpenter somehow discovered a way to make horses hoofs and bones into a tasty fruit flavored dessert labeled Jello. Lacking the wherewithal to market his product, he sold it in 1899 to Orator Woodward who successfully marketed the product into a household name and, in turn, made the Woodwards another newly minted American “nouveau riche” family. The Woodward clan did great things for the town. Their fingers were in every pie from schools, churches to library trust funds, restaurants to factory work.
Clara’s granddaughter, Mary Edith Fussell had a rough childhood; not because of poverty, access to money not a problem. Her mother, Midge, was not a warm and nurturing mother; unsettled and uncomfortable as a woman stifled in world controlled by powerful men. A woman who would have preferred to be a writer to birthing children. Midge dies of breast cancer when Mary Edith was fourteen-years-old leaving her fearful of living under the same cloud as her mother; doomed to a life dictated by “the family curse”, just as her mother had predicted. A curse with as many negative spells as Medusa has snakes. She felt she had seen the curse take her mother when she was a young girl, feared for her own life and feared for the future of her daughter, Allie. She tried to outrun the curse through drugs, drink, sex, and obsession with witchcraft. Always searching for the elusive need to feel loved and wanted in a patriarchal society. Swallowing emotions, repressing and silencing her womanly voice bringing on illness of mind and body.
The curse…It was used to explain all manner of familial misfortune. Death, alcoholism, wealth and the existential boredom it brought with it. It was, she was told, confined to men and therefore nothing for to worry [her pretty little head about]. Later she would understand…the curse wasn’t confined to men; it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her…and countless women before…
Mary’s story was very much overshadowed by several other themes -the history of Jello and its impact financially and socially on the township of Le Roy. The sweet wiggly product was examined intensely for its marketing and ad campaigns that Rowbottom feels strengthened the patriarchal power and depicted what should be the aspirational goal of every women hoping to please her man at the same time attempting to stay relevant through wars and changing societal norms.
If the intense coverage of Jello didn’t smother Mary Edith’s life, Rowbottom tosses in a mysterious “Tourette Syndrome” like illness that befells LeRoy teen girls in 2011, plays a recurring part; the impression left that these girls, like girls before them, are caught in the tangled web cast by a patriarchal society. Some thin thread alludes to Mary and Allie’s affiliation with the girl’s problems.
In the end, I felt like I was searching through a thick stew to see Mary Edith. There was one scene that physically made me sit back and say…What the? One of Mary’s heartbreaking issues had affected me emotionally. At the chapter’s end I flipped the page to an abrupt change of subject discussing the redesign of the Jello box.
There was no joy, happiness or sense that anything other than doom and gloom follows the inheritors of the great Jello fortune. I never really connected to Mary, Midge or Allie or their assertion that money was at the heart of their problems. Their curse.