The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.
I largely found this book boring and underwhelming. It was really well-written and I enjoyed the characters, but I was so bored throughout most of the book.
I think a lot of this boredom comes from the different points of view. I really enjoyed reading from Romy’s POV, and I was interested in her, her backstory, and her experience in prison. She was a really compelling narrator and main character. And though I found the other characters interesting and compelling, I just did not care about them. Hauser, the teacher at the prison and the most prevalent other POV, was an interesting character and I didn’t hate his perspective. Doc, a dirty cop, was also interesting and compelling. But, ultimately, I just did not want to read about them. I skimmed a good portion of their chapters.
My boredom with this book also comes from the lack of anything really happening. This is definitely a character-based rather than plot-based novel; however, there was very little character development that compelled me. This book isn’t about Romy or other characters coming to terms with the prison system or having major character moments, but rather just observing the system. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and could have been done in a way that was interesting and compelling. But I didn’t find those observations interesting.
There were parts of this book I liked, though. I didn’t hate all of it. Like I said, it is really well-written, and all the characters are interesting and compelling. I was really interested in the parts of this book that were about prison life, and seeing the day-to-day of prison life. I also enjoyed the sections that were about Romy’s life before prison, and seeing what lead up to her crime and her childhood. Those sections added a lot of depth and dimension to her character, as well as the other characters.
Had this book been more focused on what Romy’s life was like in prison, and her adjusting to that, or honestly even just observations about what prison life is like, I would have been much more interested in it. But, the back-and-forth between characters in and out of prison and the random sections of superfluous information not related to the narrative at all (like, why did we need several pages describing the lineup for the Grand Ole Opry) made it hard to read.
As to whether I’d recommend it, I honestly still say yes. If it’s something that was on your radar before, you should give it a read. If you’re interested in prison life and the people in and around prison, you should at least look into it. I can admit that my boredom with this book was a “it’s me, not the book” situation, and I can definitely understand why people enjoy it.
But those are just my thoughts! What about you? Have you read this? Are you planning on it? Do you have any recommendations for books about prison? Let me know!