By now, most folks have heard of “Orange Is the New Black,” a memoir that served as the basis for the new Netflix series by the same name. The premise is intriguing: Educated, wealthy Piper Kerman is charged — years after the crime — with smuggling drug money. She pleads guilty and spends 13 months in a minimum security prison in Connecticut.
My mom tried to get me to read this book last summer, but I was overloaded on narrative nonfiction and wanted no part of it. This summer, with the buzz around the Netflix series, I figured I ought to give it a chance.
I have to say — I was disappointed.
That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting themes: Past catches up with woman who has turned her life around, woman survives prison by depending on support of loved ones, etc. Kerman builds a life — albeit a restricted one — inside the prison, and the women she describes run the gamut in personality.
But, I felt, throughout the book, as if I were waiting for the story to begin. (Perhaps that was intentional for Kerman, since her full year in prison was a period of waiting for her life to start again?) Three-quarters of the book is day-to-day life and the various rules of the prison, some of which are absurd, some of which are terrifying. Is a prison setting a strong enough reason to write a memoir?
Overall, really, I wondered who this book was written for. At times, it seemed as if Kerman was exploiting the life stories of her fellow inmates — women who had come from low-income neighborhoods and would return to nothing when they were released — for personal gain.
Kerman muses — often — about how lucky she is to have the support of her parents and fiance and friends (one of whom, by the way, creates a job within his company for Kerman when she is released). The discrepancy between her situation and those of her cellmates felt wrong to me, somehow. Again, perhaps this is her intention — the afterword details some of her post-release work to help women, presumably of all backgrounds, to change their lives after serving time.
I’m not sure what I expected from “Orange Is the New Black,” but I’ve heard great things about the Netflix series, and for me, the book just didn’t measure up.