I, like many people, binge watched Netflix’s Orange is the New Black this summer. I fell down the rabbit hole on Fourth of July weekend, and immediately ordered the book upon which it’s based – Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. I guess I wasn’t the only one. Barnes and Noble said the book was backordered, so I cancelled that order and bought a used library copy from Half.com.

It’s always odd to read the book after you’ve seen the movie/TV show/series, and I wonder how I would have felt about the book version if I hadn’t first seen the show. I wasn’t disappointed, but I already knew parts of the story, even if they aren’t a perfect match.

Some of the basic facts are the same: the main character/narrator is a woman named Piper who came from a middle to upper class background, graduated from an all woman’s college, and then traveled the world with her lesbian lover who was also part of an international drug ring. Piper, once, transported money for them. A decade after she did so, she’s arrested and sent to prison.

The differences are many: Piper is not locked up in Danbury with her former lover in the book, and Pennsyltuckey, who has a major conflict with Piper in the show, is just another background. There is a guard they call Porn Stash, but he isn’t there the whole time of Piper’s sentence. Crazy Eyes from the show is a few characters from the book molded together. In the show and book, there’s a transgendered prisoner, but in the book she’d doesn’t run the prison salon. In the book, there’s a Delicious; in the show she’s Tasty – that kind of thing.

The strength of the show is that they took this true story and turned it into a deeper story because of the medium of television where you can see Piper’s surroundings. They could also expand on her story, and on the stories of the women with whom she’s locked up. The flashback sequences in the show are some of the most powerful parts of it, and turns them from criminals into people who made mistakes – sometimes small ones – that sent them to prison.

On its own merit, the book is still worth a read. Sometimes the writing flags, but that’s not enough of a quibble for me to say don’t read it. I might have read the book first if I had the chance, though. Something to consider if you’re thinking of watching and viewing Orange is the New Black.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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