Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Genre: Memoir
Pages: 298
Format: Audiobook
Publication Date: April 6, 2010

Summary:  With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.

Review: While I greatly enjoyed this book, I have a few mixed feelings. On one hand, I often found it funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. However, sometimes I found myself incredibly annoyed with Piper and her writing. Throughout her account of her time, she talks about how being around the kind of people whom she directly harmed with her crime has taught her the error of her ways. She speaks honestly and quite beautifully about her guilt and the way drugs have destroyed so many lives. Her stories are candid, funny, and sometimes at her own expense, which I found very brave. I love that she brings attention to the inefficiencies of the penal system, the poor treatment and abuses that occur. It’s a good example of someone using their privileged to bring a voice to those who have less privilege and are submersed because of that.

At a few points in the book, however, I found her incredibly whiny and unthankful. She explicitly says that she is treated better than virtually everyone because of her appearance and race. She has a massive support system outside of prison who visit her weekly, sends her presents, and talks to her on the phone. She has a place to go after prison and she’s engaged to a guy who accepts the fact that she’s spending a year in prison. Despite all of this and her short sentence to boot, she occasionally plays the “victim card”, emphasizing the fact that the crime she committed was ten years in the past and that she’s a different person. The way she portrays some of the other women is demeaning and she occasionally comes off as a “special snowflake”, making it difficult to feel sorry for her.

From a writing point of view, there were a few issues stylistically. She repeated herself almost verbatim a couple times which was incredibly annoying, as if she had forgotten what she had already written or explained. I feel like a fresh editor could pick over the book and improve it.

Part of this review is also influenced by the reader of the audiobook, whom I did not like. She had a droning, bored voice and her racial accents were just horribly insulting. I usually don’t let format get in the way of my reviews, and it didn’t affect my rating all too much, but I do recommend not listening to the audiobook of this if you do plan on reading it.

I have also watched the Netflix show and while it is very, very different than the book, I highly recommend it, both separately and as a companion to the book. It’s hilarious, entertaining, and it still raises many of the same moral and political failures of the prison system that Kerman presents in her book.


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