Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman.
Piper Kerman, a 1993 Smith graduate with no life plan, no goals, seemed happiest working in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. So after graduation, while her colleagues went off to graduate school, jobs, and suburbia, she chose to hang around with a few colorful, if somewhat unsavory, characters.
She linked up with Nora, a here-again, gone-again lesbian, who threw money around by the fistful, coddling, cuddling, and pampering Piper in a self-indulgent lifestyle: money, travel, nightclubs, restaurants, clothes, spas. Until one day, Nora, who was getting deeper and deeper into criminal activities, demanded that Piper carry a drug-money filled suitcase on an international flight to Paris. Piper realized then that her bill for all the extravagant living had come due.
The reality of her criminal life and life-style nagged at her conscience, so back in New York City after months abroad, she bailed out and broke all ties with Nora, prevailing on old friends in San Francisco to help her regain normalcy in her life.
With a somewhat unusual job, infomercial production, Piper settled into routines in San Francisco, found new friends, a boyfriend, and started to breathe easier. But with life’s twists and turns, she and Larry ended up back in New York in 1998, where the always anticipated and feared knock on the door came.
Arrested and indicted for drug smuggling and money laundering, Piper was assisted by her rich daddy’s lawyer through the criminal proceedings. Piper spent six years under federal supervision while the authorities built their case against the leader of their gang, then was sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison to be served at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut.
The rest of the book is about her life in prison (chapter 3 to 18), the friends she made, the coping strategies she used, and practical job skills she learned.
Kerman tells her story in a matter-of-fact sort of way, without heavy emotion, using vignettes of events that occur as she counts out the days and months and seasons of her sentence.
She has roommates, but they are not the ivy-league type she has been used to. Still, she manages to be something of an out-of-place prima donna given that she gets the New York Times delivered to her cell and receives tons of mail, books, and visits from Larry, her family, and friends. Surprisingly, she is not taunted by other inmates, as she otherwise tries to be a good girl, keeping away from troublemakers while serving out her sentence.
Orange is the New Black is a fast, easy-to-read book, without a lot of complexity. While Kerman describes emotional situations, the book is not overwhelmingly emotional. In fact, tense situations blow over quickly, with little or no aftermath. Even the outrageously embarrassing situations, the strip searches for example, seem to be handled with aplomb.
My favorite part of the book is page 150 where she gives the recipe for Prison Cheesecake. I will never eat cheesecake again without remembering this very special recipe. I will never use this recipe, but I will definitely remember it.
Bon appetit! Oh, I mean you’ll like, but not love, the book. It does have some interesting tales to tell. But it ends on the date Kerman gets out of prison. Period. Just like that. The End. I had hoped for a bit more of a reflection on learnings and setting of goals for a new life. Oh well, maybe that will come in another book.