Book Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange Slim.jpgOrange is the New Black.  It was the Netflix phenomenon that caught me by surprise this past year. For a while, everyone was talking about it; I firmly believe it was far and away the best new show of 2013. It was clever, it was funny, it was sad, it was dramatic, it was tense, it was action-packed, it was contemplative, and there was an entire episode centered on catching an elusive chicken that many claimed not to exist. What more can you ask for in a show? Maybe puppies? Yes, definitely puppies.

Puppies aside, I could sing the praises of the series all day. But unfortunately, this is not a review of the series; this is a review of the book on which the show was based (also called Orange is the New Black) by Piper Kerman. In my experience, I have typically found books to be more enjoyable than movies or TV because they often give readers the inside scoop on characters and events that it is a lot more difficult to explain on the screen. Furthermore, when it is written in the first person, the reader also gets an exclusive look inside the main character’s head. However, this is perhaps one of the few times ever that I enjoyed the book less than its on-screen counterpart. It was still a solid, well written book, but the TV version definitely amped up the drama and took some creative liberties to make it more entertaining for viewers.

For those of you who know nothing of the book or show, Piper, our main character, went through a restless phase immediately following college when she was on the hunt for an adventure.  In her quest for excitement, she found herself involved with the jetsetting Nora, who essentially worked for an international drug lord to smuggle drugs into the States. Although at first Piper accompanied Nora to exotic destinations as a romantic partner only, soon enough Nora roped Piper into smuggling some drugs for her, just once. It all got to be too much for Piper, who feels that Nora took advantage of her, and she calls it quits.  Piper immediately returned to her life on the straight and narrow, eventually meeting and getting engaged to a nice guy, Larry. Then, a decade later, Piper finds herself in jail on a ten year old drug charge. She is somewhat of an anomaly in prison: a young, white, educated, non-drug abusing female, which works to both her advantage (some prison guards favor her) and disadvantage (she has a lot to prove to the other inmates).

Piper’s writing is clear and to the point. She paints a vivid picture about what she endured while she was in prison, and allows the rest of the work a peek behind a curtain we don’t often have access to.  Throughout, she sprinkles in side notes about the dysfunctional state of the U.S. justice system, although she never becomes preachy nor does she let her commentary overshadow the story of her experiences. Yet, as I mentioned before, there were some key differences between the book and the show that I believe kept me from liking the book as much as I would have otherwise. Given that the book is what really happened, then the show is an interesting rendition of “what ifs” that take the excitement levels up a few (hundred) notches (e.g., What if there was a guard called PornStache that had it out for all of the inmates? What if Piper was sent to the same prison as the woman who ratted her out to the cops? What if one of the guards fell in love with one of the inmates? What if he got that inmate pregnant? What if there is a crazy Bible Thumper who thinks Piper represents an evil presence in the prison).

What if we combined all these what if’s with what really went down? Well then you’d hit the jackpot of all Prison Dramas.

Some of the primary differences between the series and the book, and I will try not to keep details as minimal as possible so as not to spoil anything, are as follows:

  • First is the matter of Piper’s ex-girlfriend, Nora (a.k.a. Alex in the show). In the series Piper gets put in the same jail as the person Piper suspects ratted her out to the authorities for being a part of the drug ring: her ex, Nora (Alex), which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t happen in real life. At least I hope it wouldn’t.  This made for a lot of drama, fueled by feelings of betrayal from Piper and jealousy/mistrust from Larry. Piper and Nora (Alex) were obviously both attracted to each other at one point, and their loneliness ultimately leads them to seek each other out. In the book, however, Nora and Piper were sent to different prisons. The only time they see each other behind bars is when they are briefly housed in the same facility together when called to testify in a trial.  Their “reunion” was more amicable than expected, because if it weren’t for Nora and Hester (Nora’s sister), then Piper would have had to wait out the trial all by herself, and it’s always preferable to have someone to talk to to pass the time.  Because Nora was not a key player in Piper’s prison experience in the book, the drama was essentially cut in half.

  • Another key difference between the show and the book is the type of relationship between Piper and Larry. Yes, they were engaged in both, but in the show, Larry is driven crazy by jealousy (rightly so, given the illicit affair he thinks is going on between Piper and her ex), and Larry copes with the pain of being away from Piper by writing a tell-all expose about what it’s like to be engaged to an inmate for his newspaper, without really getting Piper’s stamp of approval ahead of time. In the book, though, Larry was the perfect picture of male adoration and loyalty, there for Piper through the whole process, and writing a mushy story of how much he loves his fiance, I think without even mentioning where she is. So, score +10 points for being an all-star boyfriend in real life, but -50 points in the drama department. Lame.

  • Another thing that was a bit of a struggle for me was my inability to match the characters in the book to the ones I had grown so familiar with in the show. It was hard to really clearly link the two, with the exceptions being Nora/Alex, the woman who runs the kitchen Red, Pennsatucky, and Piper’s bunkie Natalie. Oh, and that lady that did Yoga all the time. But once again, the drama was amped up in the series. For instance, Red and Piper had some major issues at first in the show, which was not so in the book.  Additionally, although Pennsatucky was a heroin addict in the book and show, she wasn’t nearly as crazy-psychotic in real life. And finally, Piper’s bunkie Natalie, initially terrifying in the show, was only a tiny bit scary in the book, but mostly warm and accommodating.

Despite the many differences, though,  I still enjoyed the book.  I just think that had I read it before watching the show, I would have liked it better. Don’t get me wrong, I am relieved that Piper’s prison experience, although I’m sure still miserable, was slightly less dramatic than it was in the show. However, when you go into something expecting all these things to be true that were really just aggrandized exaggerations, disappointment is inevitable. Interestingly enough, had I read the book first, even though it was an interesting read, I don’t think I would have been compelled to watch the series unless others told me it was worth it. So, a part of me is glad I went into the show with a blank slate.

I think both the book and the show are valuable for different reasons. The book is not only informative, but it is also a commentary on the flawed nature of the American Justice system. The show, is pure, juicy, delightful entertainment loosely based on reality.

I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to review the show at all, but its hard not to make comparisons.

Final Rating for the book: 3 out of 5 stars.

And just for giggles, Final Rating of Season One: 5 out of 5 stars.

Can’t wait for season 2!