By Cady Inabinett
In his debut novel “Ballad of Jasmine Wills,” Montevallo English professor Dr. Lee Rozelle follows the titular Jasmine as she is kidnapped by reality TV producer Preston Price and forced to participate in weight loss reality show, “Diet Extreme.” Jumping between the present and past, the novel deals with overtly voyeuristic nature of weight loss, as well the dark side of wellness culture – all served with a heaping pile of nostalgia for 80s adolescence.
As one could probably guess from its inventive and zany initial plot, whatever direction you think “Jasmine Wills” is going in is rarely the direction the story ends up. This is by far the book’s greatest strength. It’s a fast-paced and exciting read – definitely a page-turner – that keeps its audience anticipating what comes next.
However, sometimes the story seems to branch in so many directions it loses its focus—and readers’ attention. Within the novel, there are several concurrent storylines Rozelle attempts to weave together—the main focus on Jasmine, Preston and “Diet Extreme,” intermittent flashbacks to Jasmine and Preston’s pasts and the developing mutiny among the show’s crew members. This results in a winding narrative that sometimes fails to coalesce into a solid storyline. While all the storylines do eventually merge, it feels forced and rushed.
By introducing so many different storylines, Rozelle runs the risk of inadvertently introducing a plotline that overshadows the main story. And, ultimately, he does this when he introduces the crew plotline. The mutinous crew is only seen in small glimpses and vignettes throughout the story, but, within the short looks into this plotline, there’s so many interesting narratives—all the politics and violence that brews when you confine any group of people together for a long enough time. Compared to the main plotline, which is based around conversations between Jasmine and Preston, the narrative opportunities presented by the crew plotline seems so much more interesting.
This issue also pairs with the meandering verboseness of Rozelle’s prose. The nature of Rozelle’s writing style is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes the story extremely atmospheric. Rozelle’s writing is lush and all-encompassing. This is particularly apparent, and refreshing to read, when Rozelle describes the novel’s rural Alabama setting. Rozelle treats the setting with the nuance it deserves. He shows the grime and abject lifelessness that fully captures basically any given small Southern town, while simultaneously capturing the natural beauty of the rural setting. It is a nuance that is rare to find in stories set in the South, with many works choosing the focus on the former elements rather than the later.
However, Rozelle’s prose also goes on to exacerbate the structural issues of the story—it can come across as middling and indecisive, only working to highlight the extreme branching of the story’s plotline. Sometimes, it’s hard as a reader to stay engaged with the novel’s story as Rozelle goes off on a tangent describing some inconsequential detail. This is especially apparent when he delves into the pop cultural references that dot many of the flashbacks into Preston’s past. The constant references to the music and pop culture that defined Preston’s adolescence, while at first an interesting detail, ends up feeling unnecessary, repetitive and, ultimately, nostalgia-driven on Rozelle’s end by the novel’s conclusion.
It’s also difficult to get a handle on what exactly Rozelle is trying to accomplish with “Jasmine Wills.” At face value, the novel is a satirical critique of the voyeuristic nature of diet and weight loss culture and the cultural fascination with reality television—especially digging in at the intersection of the two, à la shows like “The Biggest Loser.” However, Rozelle makes a few key choices that undermine the critique of this cultural zeitgeist.
For example, flashbacks that investigate the causes of Jasmine’s weight are given almost equal attention as flashbacks that explain why Preston wants to kidnap someone and create a reality show detailing their forced weight loss. This, in turn, frames Jasmine’s weight as some sort of moral failing—on par with Preston’s ethically and morally reprehensible actions, rather than just a physical characteristic. It’s difficult to tell whether this is part of the novel’s satire—drawing on how society views obesity—or some unintentional effect of Rozelle’s own views of weight.
Throughout the latter portions of the novel, following her dramatic weight loss, Jasmine is often shown to yearn for her old life of being overweight—constantly asking for Mello Yellos and sausage biscuits. She desires nothing more than to become overweight again. If this is viewed within the lens of a satire, it feels like the audience is supposed to view this sentiment as ridiculous and over-the-top. Once again, this feels like it undermines the whole point of the novel. After going through something as traumatic as being kidnapped and forced to lose weight for the entertainment of others, why shouldn’t she want to regain some sense of body autonomy? Of her own life? Isn’t the institution that did this to Jasmine supposed to be the ridiculous aspect of the story?
Overall, what Rozelle offers in “Ballad of Jasmine Wills” is exciting and inventive but, ultimately, muddled. Unfortunately, some of its greatest strengths ultimately lead to its downfall as well. The plot, while interesting and addictive, becomes overgrown and contrived—losing all shape and contradicting what seems to be its own message. Rozelle’s prose style works in a similar way: initially drawing readers in, before looping and strangling the story within itself.