Book Review – Orange is the New Black

Cover ImageTitle: Orange is the New Black

Author: Piper Kerman

Publisher: Abacus

Date: April 2010

Format: Paperback (344 pages)

Synopsis: With her career, live-in boyfriend and loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the rebellious young woman who, over a decade ago, got mixed up with drug runners and delivered a suitcase of drug money to Europe. But when she least expects it, her reckless past catches up with her: convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at an infamous women’s prison in Connecticut, Piper becomes inmate #11187-424.

From her first strip search to her final release, she learns to navigate this strange world with its arbitrary rules and codes, its unpredictable, even dangerous relationships. And she meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with tokens of generosity, hard truths and simple acts of acceptance.

Many of you will be aware of the hugely popular and Emmy-award winning Netflix show based on this non-fiction book. I love the show and I was eager to check out the book. Suffice it to say I absolutely loved it and didn’t want it to end. I’ve been careful to keep this review spoiler free for both the book and the show.

When you read the memoir of a well-educated, financially secure and otherwise successful woman like Piper Kerman, you might expect to encounter excuses and justifications for the mistakes she made in her youth which landed her in prison. But Piper doesn’t do that. She owns her mistakes and the consequences of her choices and never claims to be superior to any of her fellow inmates. I found this attitude incredibly refreshing and it made for a very open and honest account of her incarceration. I felt I could really relate to her as she goes through the process of figuring out how to survive her prison time while maintaining her sense of identity and mental stability.

My favourite quote illustrates this well:

“Most changes in perception are gradual: we grow to hate or love an idea, a person, or a place over a period of time. Sometimes, rarely, the way we see something is subject to alchemy. My emotions changed so rapidly, and I felt so strongly all the things I had in common with these women … our troubled history was suddenly matched by our more immediate shared experience as prisoners on an exhausting journey.” (p.311)

I also really liked Kerman’s writing style which I described in my notes as “honest, engaging, informative and raw.” There was also a lot of humour mixed in with the intense emotions which I really enjoyed. I loved reading about the relationships she develops with the other prisoners and how they look out for each other, like making a huge deal about someone’s birthday or release date. I was particularly impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness shown by the inmates. Let’s just say there are more uses for sanitary towels than you might think and it’s possible to make a palatable cheesecake in prison using this recipe.

In comparison to the Netflix show, the characters we know and love are definitely there, but not in the way we’re used to. It’s like Jenji Kohan (the creator of the show) took the characteristics and personal histories of the real life women and recombined them to create the dynamic characters we see on screen. Some of the names are the same (although Kerman changed most of them to protect the women’s identities) and there are plenty of recognisable character traits and back stories. I had fun trying to figure out who was who and there were a lot of “aha!” moments when I made a connection between the real life people and the show’s characters. That being said, Kerman made the people in her book come alive for me and I found myself imagining what they looked like instead of automatically picturing the actors. That’s one of the reasons why I believe this book would be enjoyable even if you haven’t seen the show (which you totally should, by the way).

The main lesson I took away from this book was this: it’s the times when you think you have nothing that you have the greatest capacity for generosity, openness and honesty.

Overall Rating: Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture My bookworm rating system is explained here.

Other Works by this Author: This is Piper Kerman’s first book. You can find out more about her and her advocacy work here.