Review: The Mars Room

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Review for "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It took me almost a month to read this book. Based on its glowing reviews and my initial enthusiasm when I first picked it up, this should have been a book that I breezed right through. It wasn’t.

“The Mars Room” opens with the story of Romy Hall, a single mother shackled on a bus and headed to a remote women’s prison in California to begin two life sentences without parole. In the time before, we learn that her young life was full of trauma and neglect–drugs, hustling, and working as a dancer at a strip club that bears the book’s title, The Mars Room. The novel begins with details of Romy’s adjustment to prison life, the harsh conditions of confinement, and the connections she makes on the inside. Interspersed with Romy’s narrative are the stories of other characters in the facility and beyond: Sammy, her cell mate, Gordon, a teacher in the prison who falls for Romy, Doc, a crooked cop in a separate facility that’s loosely connected to the story’s events, and at last, Kurt, Romy’s victim.

The story started out well, but as it continued I found it harder and harder to engage with. Romy, in my opinion, was far too distant and aloof. There is a sense of empathy that you feel for Romy’s circumstances, but nothing was felt as far as a personal connection to her. The other perspectives fare no better—they absentmindedly jump around between first and third pov’s in short, vignette-style chapters. Also problematic was the reason behind the inclusion of several of them–Doc, for instance (as I mentioned before, he is only loosely connected to the events of the story). There are also excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diary, lengthy quotes from Henry David Thoreau. I’m still not sure what either of those perspectives were doing here.

There are also plot events that were so predictable that I knew how they would play out before even starting the book. Beyond setting up the basics of the story, nothing significant seems to really happen until the end and by then it’s too much, too late.

And finally…I know that women in prison make great stories, but it bothers me that this novel really doesn’t break any new ground here. What I’m saying is that there really isn’t anything in this book that we haven’t heard or seen already that hasn’t appeared in an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” What, then, is the point of this novel? If it is to stress how women on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale end up incarcerated, then we are already well familiar with this through investigative reporting on this issue, OITNB, and a multitude of other books out there. If it is to make a larger point beyond this (hence the inclusion of Kaczynski and Thoreau), then count me among those that simply didn’t get “it.”

Overall, I think that “The Mars Room” is a book with a lot of potential but doesn’t really have anything new to say.

I rate this as 3 stars, and that’s being more than nice.

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