If you, like me, are completely obsessed with Netflix’s original series, Orange is the New Black, then you will understand both why I had to read the book the minute I finished the first season of the show, and why I was hesitant to do so: I wanted the memoir to be exactly as excellent and boundary-pushing as the show, and I didn’t want to be disappointed.
Well, of course, the book is the book, and not the show, but I was not disappointed in the least.
The basic premise of both follows a not-so-squeaky-clean white girl named Piper (Chapman in the fictional universe, Kerman in real life), who carried a suitcase full of drug money while in a relationship with an older woman that worked for an international drug cartel. Piper doesn’t get caught, but her colleagues eventually do, and years later, long after she has left both the drug game and her ex-girlfriend, someone talks. Piper is brought up on charges ten years after her crime, and convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
Much of what occurs in the book makes it to the show, but some of it doesn’t, and herein lies the real gold: in coming to know Piper Kerman’s real struggles, Piper Chapman becomes both more interesting and a more deeply flawed character. The book also reveals just how much Jenji Kohan, the co-creator, writer, producer of the series, preserved the elements from the memoir that make it a great show: those major leaps in portraying women of color, women of all sexual preferences, real female friendships, and class divides.
Kerman’s writing is not without flaws, but in this instance, her story trumps style. She not only examines her own experience (regularly acknowledging how much luckier her circumstances were than almost all of the women she served time with), she delves into the incredibly complex and contradictory workings and mores of the federal prison system.
If Orange is the New Black in any form provides a realistic glimpse inside women’s prisons in America, it’s important work. Love it on-screen, love it on the page, whatever you do: there’s much to be gained from both.
FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library.