Book Review: THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.

You can read my full review below.


The Mars Room Cover.jpg

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: May 1, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $27.00

Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.

The Mars Room, page 25

Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.

But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.

There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.

The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.

Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.

The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:

There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.

One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.

Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.

Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.

The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★


My copy of The Mars Room came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

The SHARP OBJECTS miniseries on HBO: Are you planning to tune in?

The HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, starts broadcasting on Sunday, July 8th!

It stars Amy Adams as a self-harming journalist who returns to her Missouri hometown to investigate a series of brutal murders of young girls, and the trailer moves from kinda-creepy to goddamn terrifying in the span of 90 seconds:

*flails*

I read the book back in 2016 and it was truly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. I have a low tolerance for horror, especially psychiatric horror, but Gillian Flynn hooked me with Sharp Objects just as much as she repulsed me. It’s a complicated book that touches on all sorts of common mental illness triggers but also turns stigma on its head. It’s deeply upsetting but you can’t put it down. What a feat.

Flynn is best known for her novel Gone Girl, and while I love that book (and the movie adaptation) with all my heart, I think Sharp Objects might be an even tighter story structurally and conceptually. This wonderful interview with Flynn about female rage and unlikable characters only increased my excitement for the adaptation–she’s been heavily involved in the series’ development since day 1, so I think viewers have a good chance of a home run here.

I’m sure that the Sharp Objects miniseries is going to leave me trembling and sleeping with the lights on, but I plan to give it a shot anyway. If I can tolerate it, I might even give weekly recaps a try here on the blog.

What do you think? Have you read Sharp Objects? Are you excited about HBO’s newest addition to its Sunday night lineup? Let me know in the comments!

Sharp Objects debuts Sunday, July 8th at 9pm Eastern on HBO and HBO GO.

Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

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why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!