The Mars Room

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 May 2018

Member Reviews

Read this book for the perspective it offers on life for women in prison and also for the remarkable character at its heart.
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This is not a pretty novel. This is gritty, and real. Real in a way that shows a different way of life and the struggle to get by and through the day, the week, the year, the life. I was utterly impressed, even with the melancholy the novel left me with.
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This is a tough one because I like Kushner' s writing but didn't care for the subject. The main character, a mother and stripper, is serving a sentence for murdering a stalker. She is subjected to a hard life in prison and there are substories that take place involving gender identity. The plot skips around from before prison to during prison. Difficult to read about her son and parental rights. 
A down and out subject for sure.

Copy provided by the Publisher and NetGalley
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After protecting herself against a stalker, Romy Hall faces two consecutive life sentences and permanent separation from her young son. The Mars Room tells the tale of her acclimation to life in a California women's prison, along with the interconnected stories of other inmates she encounters. It's a powerful and painful tale of the injustice of the justice system and the hard choices inmates must face. Kushner's writing is wonderfully balanced and painfully real. It took me months to work up the courage to read such a harrowing story, but I'm glad I finally did.
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With The Mars Room, Kushner's second novel, she makes clear she's a major talent. Tackling very different subject matter from The Flamethrowers, Kushner is just as confident and daring. She reminds me of Denis Johnson and Jennifer Egan, two of my favorite novelists of the past several decades.
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The Mars Room tells the tale of a woman named Romy who is serving 2 life consecutive sentences. While the story begins while she's in prison, the book is about how she made the decisions that eventually landed her there. It's gritty. It's unvarnished and romanticized. But it's believable, and that's what made this a great read.

I absolutely loved this book - it was one of the few I've read in the past year that I had trouble putting down in order to do other things. What appealed most to me was the character development and how Kushner slowly revealed motivations and the circuitous route of how the individuals landed where they did at the end of the story. Masterfully written and highly engaging. Highly recommended.
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An absorbing and challenging novel about a woman’s descent into the correctional system. With echoes of Robert STone and similar writers, Kushner gives us a compelling central protagonist, deeply flawed but also sympathetic. Not an especially easy read, but in light of ongoing discussion of our penal system, highly topical. Recommended.
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Rachel Kushner is a phenomenal writer, and this book is a testament to her abilities and her wide scope of imagination.  This is a book with an important setting- women's prison- but it doesn't fall into cliques or simplistic tropes.  The issues that the characters engage with feel fresh, alive and nuanced.  She is able to craft a new way of looking at the myriad of reasons why women end up in jail, without preaching or being heavy-handed.   What I love about her writing is that you are never really sure where you will end up with her narratives.  By giving up the control and allowing yourself to be taken by her story, you will be rewarded with insights and characters unlike those you have encountered before. She is one of the best and this book is one of her best.
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Despite the fact that I am unquestionably THE target demographic for this book, and despite the fact that it is unquestionably well-written, it did not do much for me.

Because it jumps around a lot in time and perspective, it functions as a series of more or less insightful vignettes about the characters' lives before and during prison, but it mainly reads as if the author is saying "I have learned everything about prison life, now let me show you it!"

The ostensible main character, Romy, functions partly as a Trojan Horse in the same way that Jenji Kohan, showrunner of the prison dramedy Orange is the New Black, has described the ostensible main character of that show, Piper, as functioning: these two women are white, while the majority of the other prisoners around them are women of color, and white leads are allegedly better for drawing mainstream readers/viewers in (and sadly, I would bet that this is indeed true). But while OitNB is openly based, at least in its first season, on a nonfiction book written by the real-life Piper, The Mars Room is more slyly based on the experiences of real people, masquerading as the fruit of Kushner's well-researched imagination. Romy herself seems to be Kushner's stand-in, a sort of "This could have been me, but for the grace of..." deal. I don't have a fundamental problem with the use of author stand-ins, per se, but Romy's 's narrative voice, one of several in first-person, seems inauthentic for the character. I actually found the third-person perspectives in this book to be more effective , even though, or perhaps especially, they tended to be male characters. (Apparently a previously published short story about a male teacher in a womens' prison was worked into this book. For whatever that's worth.)

I don't really understand why this book is set in the early 2000s, other than because Kusher would have been around Romy's age at that time -- another instance of inevitable character/author parallel. Perhaps I'm being willfully dense about the drawing of contemporary analogies, but the only interest this time-frame seems to hold is that there can be some Bush-era background noise, and there's no social media or smartphones.

This book is extremely well-written. I'm impressed with Kushner's ability to synthesize so many elements and so much information. But at the same, this book feels didactic and even a little pretentious. It is also unrelentingly grim and will make you want to take a shower. And yet, if one is forced by this book to reckon with the effects of a broken system -- and a deeply flawed American society at large -- one might be better yet served by reading non-fiction about modern prison and the prison–industrial complex. Or -- yes, I will say it! -- watching the first three seasons of OitNB.
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I'm a bit torn in how to review this book as there is plenty that I feel the author executed very well: flipping between people's perspectives kept the pace of the plot interesting, flowing back and forth across timelines and through various inmate's histories. Kushner throws the reader headlong into the sad realities of life for marginalized populations both in and out of the prison system. I typically enjoy dark, gritty reads and the deadened affect of the characters complemented the tone of the novel perfectly. All that said, upon finishing all I could think was "Wait, is that it?" This may be an unfortunate case of desensitization via pop culture, but I feel that this book didn't really contribute much to the conversation that has not already been explored (both well or flippantly) by "Orange is the New Black" or "Prison Break." Which isn't to say there can be only one... just that I don't quite understand the waves upon waves of accolades this book received. Or for that matter, the Man Booker nomination. I chewed through the novel over a a few plane trips during a vacation, so maybe I just wasn't in the right headspace.
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My sincere appreciation to Netgalley and Scribner for providing me with an ARC, in exchange for this honest review. 

3.5, rounded up. 

Had never read any Kushner before, although 'The Flamethrowers' has been in my TBR pile a long time, and on the strength of this, I intend to get around to it sooner, rather than latter. I had mixed feelings about this, however. In some respects, finishing it felt like just having binge-watched several seasons of 'Orange is the New Black', and the fact that this just reiterates many tropes and stereotypical characters from that (and let's be honest, any 'females in prison' narrative since Eleanor Parker got 'Caged' back in 1950!) is one of the negatives. The other being that Kushner's many years of researching the topic means that she throws way too many stories at us willy-nilly, on hopes that they stick - and this disjointed approach sometimes meant that I was scrambling to remember who was who and where in the story each piece of the puzzle fit. Some of these stories either feel shoehorned in (still haven't a clue why the excerpts from the Unabomber's diary are there) or remain unresolved - Doc's storyline left dangling being the most egregious one. 

So that's the negatives - but they are pretty much cancelled out by some very strong positives - Kushner's writing is fluid, compulsively readable and fact-paced - I immersed myself in the book and raced through the 350 pages in about 18 hours (with time out for sleep and eating, but not much more!) The central character of Romy (apparently named for German actress Schneider) is strongly developed and on several levels heartbreaking; many of the subsidiary characters, although lacking her complexity, are also well-drawn. I thought the character of the prison GED teacher, Gordon, was also nicely developed, and wish he had had a more central role - had it focused more on Romy and him, then the novel might have been a bit stronger, if more conventional. Having lived in the SF Bay Area most of my life, her evocation of the area circa 2000 is spot-on, and giving a shout-out to Contra Costa County where I still reside bumped the book from a 3.5 to a 4! Doubt if this is strong enough to actually win the Booker it is nominated for, but thoroughly expect it to make the shortlist.
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Provocative and well-written - I read it for hours on end - but ultimately there were too many threads. One of the few books I felt should have been longer! It did, however, encourage me to put The Flamethrowers on my to be read list.
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Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room puts on display the massive failings of the prison and justice system, particularly for women. Romy Hall is serving two life sentences in the Stanville's Women Correctional Facility after violently killing a man. But as we delve deeper into Romy's story, we find that her trail and subsequent sentence was deeply flawed, her public defense a sham, her job as a stripper at a shady locale called The Mars Room the initiation to her misery. Romy was in fact, the victim of a stalker who refused to give her up, even though when she moved to another city, but none of that mattered at the time of her conviction.
Kushner gives us a scarred heroine in Romy, a single mother who doesn't always make the right choices but tries her best to provide for her son Jackson. While in prison, Romy fights the system to find where her son has been sent to, hitting a wall each time. Kushner brilliantly draws Romy's desperation in her inability to discover the whereabouts of her son, while trying to survive life in prison.
In the end, Romy will make a desperate decision to find her son. Kushner leaves us to decide whether we understand her choice, or shake our heads in mortification.
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The Mars Room is good and enjoyable, just not great. The shifting povs is both a strong point (in that the storylines do collide) and a weakness (in that not all sections, povs, are equally interesting; some strain for effect). If you want a better read that is also written in shifting pov and heavily influenced by place, pick up Sing Unburied Sing.
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I honestly don’t know why I forced myself to finish this book. There were parts that sparked my interest a little, but it was fleeting. The book jumps back and forth between Romy’s life out of prison and serving two life sentences in prison.  It’s basically a super tame, less interesting completely fiction rip off of Orange is the New Black. OITNB set the bar too high and this book fell very short. Disappointing all the way around. 

I received a free ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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I've read a few nonfiction books recently on life in prison, and I thought a fictional account of a women's prison would continue to aid me in understanding this type of life. A good portion of this book takes place in the prison and there are some interesting scenes of getting to the prison, intake, and life with cell roommates, but a probably equal portion of the book tells about the main character's life before prison. She grew up on the streets of San Francisco with a mother who didn't care much for her, and she became a stripper. The truth of her crime is not revealed until the end although it is hinted at throughout the book. The most emotional part of the book is the fact that she has a young son, and she has been sentenced to life in prison. There is also another weird side story about a teacher that works at the prison. Ultimately, this book wasn't what I thought it was and it lacked depth and continuity. Throughout the whole book, even at the end, I was only getting bits and pieces, and it was hard to fit them together.
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“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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The Mars Room is a book that I was highly anticipating. I was certain it was going to be one of my new favorite reads! And that leaves me wondering if my lukewarm reaction to it was a reflection of my too high expectations. Maybe it would have been a 4 star for me if I wasn’t so excited? I guess we’ll never know.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it was a decent book. It was fine. The character development and writing style worked for me. But what really saved the book for me was the setting, the author’s descriptions were dead on (I’m from the Central Valley of California so…), often making me feel like I was really there, like I was home. So, in many ways, it was the familiarity that I connected with.

Oddly, I feel a little guilty about not loving it. Like somehow I, the reader, missed out on something the first time around, and maybe I should try it again before making a final judgment. At least my expectations would be lower in a reread. Yeah, probably not gonna happen.

Ultimately, it was meh for me. Wanted to desperately to love it, but it just didn’t work out.
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This book presents a raw vision of the criminal justice system and life inside prisons. Though we meet many inmates, the main character is Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker. Romy has a young son and must learn to navigate her new reality.

I must admit I researched the author because the description of life behind bars feel as if this was a firsthand account. It turns out she interviewed many inmates to create an authentic experience for the reader. I don't know about others, but this reader appreciated it.
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Romy Hall is just beginning her life sentence at a women’s prison. She’s young and has had a difficult life, and tries not to think about the young son she has left on the outside. We get a lot of information about her past, and the sordid jobs she took to provide for her son. It’s very realistic, a hard-hitting look at socioeconomic factors, gender, and poverty. 

We also get other narratives: from Romy’s prison friend, from a GED teacher working with the inmates, and even the man Romy has been convicted of murdering. I liked these other stories, but ultimately wondered why they were included, especially that of the naive GED teacher. 

This prison novel is steeped in character study, which always appeal to me. But be warned, this isn’t a happy book, or even a mildly optimistic one. It does beg many important questions about empathy and blame. Do we feel for these women, even those convicted of murder? How do we reconcile these crimes with the daily struggles of their lives? 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an arc.
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