The backstory: Orange is the New Black has been adapted into a Netflix original comedy by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds.)
The basics: After graduating from Smith College, Piper Kerman was seeking adventure. She opted to stay in idyllic Northampton, Massachusetts, and she started dating Nora, an enchanting lesbian who turned out to be part of an international drug smuggling operation. Piper briefly participated too. Five years later, federal agents arrest her, and she must go to jail for fifteen months. Orange is the New Black chronicles her time in a women's prison.
My thoughts: I have a bizarre fascination and fear of prison. Not that I have a urge to break the law to begin with, but I am a poster child for doing all I can to avoid ever going to jail or prison. The first chapter of Orange is the New Black is armchair adventure at its best: Piper and Nora travel the world, visit exotic places, and part of me started thinking--maybe it would be all worth it. What makes Piper's story so unfortunate (admittedly, she did the crime, and she was forced to do the time) is its timing. Piper wasn't arrested immediately after the crime. To have federal agents show up at your door years later is jarring ,and it instantly made Piper sympathetic to me. Even worse, when she decides to take the plea and serve fifteen months rather than risk a trial and potentially face far more time, part of her plea agreement is to testify, and that testimony is also postponed for years. Even after she has accepted her fate, she can't begin her prison time. Once this backstory is out of the way (and honestly, at the time, I was heartbroken the adventure was already over!), the real heart of this memoir begins.
Kerman is a gifted writer, and at times her prose reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert (which I mean as a complement: both of Gilbert's memoirs are among my favorites because she writes about pain with such exquisite grace.) I expected Piper to tell her story, and let's be honest, she's my demographic more than most of her prison peers. What I didn't expect was to grow to root for and care about so many of the other inmates. At times the stories sound like bands of sororities. They're a beautiful joining together of women both against a common evil and for a common good. There's an inspiring sense of innovation in how these women find ways to transform the ordinary objects they have into functional, useful things. There are tragic stories, too, it's not an entirely uplifting memoir, of course. Ultimately, that's what I loved most about it--it's a story of survival. As with most survival tales, it requires the right combination of positivity, reality, and perseverance.
Audio thoughts: Cassandra Campbell is my favorite audiobook narrator, and this performance was particularly brilliant. She artfully captured the voices of so many different women in the prison.
The verdict: Orange is the New Black was an unexpectedly poignant memoir about women banding together to face adversity. Don't be mistaken, there's plenty of dark here too, but Kerman expertly paints portraits of the inmates' individual and collective humanity; this memoir excels because it doesn't shy away from the good and bad decisions of its inhabitants.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (the book); 5 out of 5 (audio production)
Length: 352 pages (11 hours 14 minutes)
Publication date: April 6, 2010
Source: purchased at Audible
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Orange is the New Black from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)
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