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July 24, 2018

Allie Rowbottom's Playlist for Her Memoir "JELL-O Girls"

JELL-O Girls

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Allie Rowbottom's memoir JELL-O Girls is a
the fascinating story of three generations of women and their fight against cultural standards.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Rowbottom delivers a moving memoir of a daughter seeking to understand her mother, family, and the place of women in American society, and the narrative also serves as a thoughtful, up-close-and-personal feminist critique of a cultural icon. A book brimming with intelligence and compassion"


In her own words, here is Allie Rowbottom's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir JELL-O Girls:



When I write, it often feels like the rhythm and cadence and spirit of songs I’ve listened to all my life transfer by osmosis to my words. JELL-O Girls is my first book and it’s a hard one to categorize. It’s at once an illness memoir, a family history, a social history and a book about the imperative to speak truth to power. It’s creepy and witchy, sometimes, sweeping and epic at others, so to perform it I chose songs that, in my mind and regardless of genre, perform the deep search for meaning that impels this book.

Joni Mitchell, All I Want: This song, from Mitchell’s famous album Blue, embodies what I think a lot of the music on this playlist shoots for. It promises narrative at the same time it attaches its listener to a character and her journey, her range of emotions, her life. I listened to it daily on my (miserable) morning drive to high school. I listened to it in college as I walked the streets of New York. I listened to it when I moved to California, driving through the canyons. It’s a song that is part of me, as intrinsic as my story, my mother, our past, all of which I channel in JELL-O Girls.

Julia Holter, Our Sorrows: Here is witchcraft, despair, a promise - if you call out, I will follow– and the yearning to keep it. Writing JELL-O Girls, I often felt like I was reaching into the past, into the memory of my mother and grandmother, and into the collective history of every woman’s life, asking for meaning, asking for permission to follow their stories.

Laura Groves, Dream Story: Here I am, writing, moving forward on the page, each word an effort to tell my mother’s story, my story, trying to get it all real and right; trying to render truth from fragments of memory, files of loose pages; trying to write the story my mother died before finishing.

Jackson Browne, Doctor My Eyes: This is my mother, Mary, first as twenty-something woman receiving treatment at the Austin Riggs Center in the late '60s, then as a woman trying to communicate with the medical establishment, then as a ghost, reflecting on the life she had and trying to understand it.

Natalie Merchant, Wonder: This song has it all: mothers and daughters and doctors and magic and power. Also, the memory of my mother dancing in in the aisles at Lilith Fair when I was nine, snapping her fingers and swinging her hips.

Todd Rundgren, It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference: This song is one hundred percent my dad pulling into the driveway of my childhood home in his white Saab, windows down and a dime bag in the glove compartment. It is his paunch, the end of the day sag of his white work shirt from the waist of his pants, the wilt of his tie. It is all this, and then it is me, four years old, running to greet him, joy and excitement coursing like blood through my body, and through his, when he took me in his arms and tossed me towards the sky.

SZA, Normal Girl: How do I be how do I be the narrator of this song asks, followed by, I’ll never be no never be, summing up the dueling desires, fears, questions that drive many women’s lives, including my mother’s and mine. We all grow up with this myth of the “normal girl,” who is low maintenance, easy and emotionlessness and completely impossible. For many of us, understanding her impossibility is integral to becoming the women we want to become. I hope my mom understood this before she died; I hope I do, too.

Kate Bush, This Woman’s Work: Here is new motherhood, a sense of new womanhood, a sense of unpreparedness, a sense of loss and gain. Here is a dark room. A woman – my mother? My grandmother? Some future vision of myself? – and her child, her grief and depression, her heartbreaking love. She looks at her daughter and feels exhausted. There is so much to impart. There is so much to fear.

James Taylor, Sweet Baby James: This song is Mary driving the Mass Pike through the Berkshires. It’s fall and the trees around her are lit up like they’re on fire. Her slender hands grip the wheel tightly, absent the age spots they had at the end of her life, the creepy wrinkles I remember smoothing as she lay dying. But in the moment of this song she is young, twenty something, just starting to see outside herself. Her purse is on the seat beside her, gaping open. The heat blasts her knuckles. She is almost home.

Sarah McLachlin, Mary: Mary is dying. Mary is walking, down to the river’s edge, peering over the bank and watching the water rush, quick as memory. She is neither young nor old. She is neither spirit nor flesh. She is faded, shadowy. She is distraught, in despair - it’s time to go but she can’t leave. She strains to hear the voices, but they’re distant now, further every moment. Go go, they say, but she lingers.

Dar Williams, After All: word for word, down to the mom’s room full of books and the father raging down a spiral staircase, the characters in this song reflect a familiar landscape to me. The narrator of this song sings of the perils of a soul reined in, how the body turns to winter and how choosing to thaw, to feel and to risk feeling, is to open oneself to love. It sounds corny, and this song (like this entire playlist) is not not corny, but it is literally a part of me, embedded on my brain years ago when I was miserable and alone and listening to this song as I drove through the dark mornings on my way to high school. I cried every time I heard it then (I still do), yearning for the love, the truth, Dar Williams sings of. I was not yet brave enough to reach for it, though I was on the way. I was always on the way, and JELL-O Girls is a testament to that.

Whitney Houston, My Love is Your Love: Here is my mom’s farmhouse in Vermont, where she moved after she left my father. Here is her wood stove, and the small kitchen table beside it; here’s my mom and twelve-year-old me, sitting across from each other, me with a textbook, she with a checkbook and a stack of bills, both of us sipping from lukewarm cups of hot chocolate while we listen to Whitney sing about unending love for the millionth time. We were always fighting back then, but when I listen to this song, I yearn to go back with every cell in my body. I guess, to some extent, in my writing, I do.

Cigarettes After Sex, Keep on Loving You: Love across time across boundaries and bodies and lifespans is the love that’s spoken to in this song, the love I channeled to write JELL-O Girls. It’s the love I feel from the art that moves me most and the love my mother gave me. Maybe this ongoingness is what we all must channel to make art in the first place.

War on Drugs, Eyes to the Wind: Jon is in the driver’s seat, both hands on the wheel. I’m next to him, staring out the window, fields of corn and wheat whipping by. Late summer’s golden glow; our dog curled in the space behind our seats. From time to time Jon reaches over and takes my hand. As the sun begins to set, we pass into Ohio. At home in Connecticut, my mother is dying. And I am here, on a lonely road, a journey, a life; here I am, driving away from her.


Allie Rowbottom and JELL-O Girls links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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