Orange Is the New Black is a fairly typical memoir, in that one’s enjoyment of the story hinges on whether one likes the author/narrator. Piper’s race and social status means that she had a far different prison experience than someone of a different race and socioeconomic class. That she recognizes this fact is a point in her favor, but she still presents her experiences tainted with the privilege afforded someone with money and education. Her commentary about the prison system and its effectiveness provides much fodder for lengthy and worthwhile discussions. Still, there are plenty of times readers will wonder just how representative her lessons truly are.
While Piper spends a lot of the time discussing the thought process behind incarceration as a punishment, she actually spends very little time brainstorming ways for improvement. She points out many of its problems and the lack of logic associated with sentencing, but that is all she does. Given how observant she is as well as erudite, one wishes she would have gone that extra step. If the system does not work, how should it change? That is not to say the answers are not there; in fact, they are there but buried behind her words. It is as if she is still following the arbitrary prison rules even while writing this reflection of her 13 months in federal prison because she never explicitly states direct methods for improvement. Those she leaves for readers to extrapolate and interpret, a disappointing side step for someone perfectly poised to not only expose the prison system in all its ugly bureaucracy but also to champion some much-needed improvements.
For those expecting the same salacious and aggressive anecdotes as the TV show, it might behoove them to stick with the TV show. For, the memoir is not nearly as sexual or dangerous as the TV show implies. In fact, Piper comments on multiple occasions the lack of sexual intrigue occurring within and around the camp and how much it surprised her given everything one reads about prison. There is a distinct lack of violence within the memoir as well. It is there, as Piper mentions having to alter her behavior to avoid trouble; it is mostly an implied threat more than an overt one. The TV show is so extreme compared to the book, which makes for better viewing, even if the book version is a more accurate picture of the truth.
Cassandra Campbell is, as usual, excellent narrating Piper’s story. Her voice is so pleasant, and her phrasing is impeccable. This memoir has the added challenge of many ethnic voices, something for which Ms. Campbell is quite adept at handling. One can easily distinguish the origins of the inmates with whom Piper becomes friends and even differentiate among those from similar backgrounds. It is not a perfect performance however; Ms. Campbell does have a tendency to make Piper sound like a complete snob, whiny and full of her own self-worth. Still, her performance brings to vibrant life the world behind bars and the women she meets and befriends while there.
Orange Is the New Black is a fascinating look into prison life as Piper shines a light into some of its darker recesses. She may not be the most likeable protagonist at times, given her propensity to lament her missing fiancé and expound upon her family and friends’ love and generosity, but she does an excellent job exposing the inequity of the judicial and penal systems. Just when one wonders what other indignities one could suffer in the name of justice, Piper shares yet another example. It makes for an eye-opening reading experience, even if it is tame in comparison to the TV show.