Published by Simon and Schuster on May 1st 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary
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It’s taken me a long time to admit that I just didn’t like The Mars Room very much. Even as I was struggling to keep my eyes on the page, keep reading, and not get distracted by that piece of fluff on the floor, I was doing my best to write a positive review in my head.
I thought I would love it. It felt like I should. What doesn’t sound great about a gritty prison novel dissecting class, wealth and other power structures in the penal system? Diverse characters, complicated family dynamics, and unfair bullshit that sees poor, working class women given shoddy legal representation? Sign me up to be pissed off (in the way that leads to 5-star ratings).
But I found this book so disjointed, aloof and boring. Even Romy’s first-person chapters felt distant and impersonal, like she was looking down on events from far away and not living them. Perhaps this is some kind of literary technique, but it did nothing except make me feel completely disconnected.
I understand the importance of The Mars Room. It takes a look at how socioeconomic factors affect rate of incarceration, the quality of legal defense received, and recidivism. The protagonist, 28-year-old Romy Hall, killed a man who stalked her incessantly for months, but the jury didn’t see any of that. All they saw was the brutality of the crime. Now Romy is serving consecutive life sentences in a California women’s correctional facility.
These themes speak to something close to my heart– the way poverty and background can deeply affect all aspects of a person’s life. I’m very intrigued (and angered) by economic power structures, and I’m particularly interested in Marxist Feminism. This book didn’t have to work hard to sell me on its point; it just had to keep me interested in its characters and the story being told. And, sadly, that’s where it failed.
The story didn’t flow. It jumped around between perspectives, and between first and third person, in short choppy chapters. Obviously any person with a heart would feel sorry for Romy, but that’s about the extent of the emotional connection. I felt a kind of universal empathy for her, but no personal attachment to her circumstances. I also don’t know why Doc’s chapters were necessary.
It’s strange how I felt like Kushner showed a lot of awful things happening, but without conveying any of the emotion you would expect to go with them. But maybe it’s just me. The early reviews have been glowing.