The Mars Room: A Novel

by Rachel Kushner

Hardcover, 2018

Call number




Scribner (2018), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


"From twice National Book Award-nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called "the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year" (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America. It's 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in California's Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision. Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner's work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined."--… (more)

Library's review

This book tells the story of prison. Deeply. Descriptively. Non-judgmentally. There is a rich and moving story of one woman at the center of this multi-vocal depiction of how a variety of people wind up in prison, how most stay there or return, and how a few "escape." In addition to being a first rate fictional narrative, Kushner's book should be required reading for our politicians pretending to address prison reform. (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member kcshankd
Stunning. A whirl through characters in a California women's prison, circa 2003. Each character polishes and sharpens a facet of a shitty story, trying to play the hand they are dealt.
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner, author and narrator
Although the author does a good job of reading the book, the subject matter could not hold my interest. The main character was a lap dancer. She is now being transferred to a new prison. She is serving two concurrent life sentences for murder. She describes her trip and some of her past. The story is bleak and dark. It is populated with characters who are miscreants and don’t seem to want to reform. Rather, some like the world inside better than the world at large.
The language the author uses is crude. Her characters are unlikeable. I got through about 1/3 of the book and finally just gave up. Simply put, the book depressed me. It may interest those who like stories about lawlessness, dysfunction and despair. It isn't my cup of tea. I didn't want to keep reading, hoping to find a redeeming feature. Sorry, but it was just too much of a downer for me
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LibraryThing member SignoraEdie
I did not finish this book. I could not get engaged in it.
LibraryThing member wandering_star
I know it's lazy to describe something as x meets y, but all the way through this I was thinking - Denis Johnson meets "Orange is the New Black". The way that Kushner uses language - and the hopelessness of the lives described - reminded me a lot of Johnson. And I thought of OITNB not just because the story is set in a woman's prison, but also because of the structure - the main story focuses on a woman called Romy Hall, but there are also chapters telling us the backstory of many of the secondary characters.

This is significant because for most of the people in this book, it's unusual for them to be seen as a human being. They have spent a lot of their lives being processed by blindly hostile bureaucracies.

No Tank Tops, the sign had said at Youth Guidance. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks.

Equally, for the men who go to the Mars Room (where Romy worked as a lapdancer), the women in front of them are not people but fantasies - and most of the women who work there have in their youth encountered men who treated them as means to an end.

This book would be almost unreadably bleak if it wasn't so good, and so compassionate towards its characters - not just because of what has been done to them, but because of what they have done. It doesn't pretend that they are angels, but it does recognise that having committed a crime is also something which has a huge impact on the criminal.

You go to ad seg and you don’t stop having feelings. You hear a woman cry and it’s real. It’s not a courtroom, where they ask all the pertinent and wrong questions, the niggling repeated demands for details, to sort contradiction and establish intent. The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
”I worked at the Mars Room, giving lap dances. It’s not even the best of the strip clubs in San Francisco. There isn’t any status in it unless you’d be impressed to know that the Mars Room is not a middling or mediocre strip club but definitely the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is.”

Romy Hall is a young mother in 2003 when her shitty world comes crashing down around her and she ends up with two life sentences in a California penitentiary. This is the grittiest and most maddening novel I’ve read in a long time. Kushner knew just what she was doing in tearing down the general policy of mass incarceration of poor people who may or may not belong in prison but definitely got a raw deal because they couldn’t afford a good criminal attorney and had to settle for a court appointed lawyer, who really could care less what the outcome for their client was.
Romy was dealt a hand from the bottom of the deck from the day she was born and her negligent mother named her after a German actress who was said to have dated Hitler. So an auspicious start for Romy. Things just went downhill for her from there. It’s not until the end of the book that we learn the details of what she did to land in prison.

Kushner fills the book with complicated characters who share Romy’s fate and favors a dry, static narration that serves to build the drama of their lives. Overcrowded conditions wear the inmates down as well as the inhumane treatment by the prison guards. The scene where Romy and some other inmates are being delivered to the prison initially when a young woman goes into labor will tear your heart out and just adds to the frustration and anger that builds as the novel progresses. This is not an easy read but, I think, a necessary one. If we are not going to ensure that poor people get a proper defense in court we will never get beyond the horrifying conditions of mass incarceration in this country. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
For the most part, The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are two very different books. One has a female narrator, one a male. One takes place in the United States, the other in the United Kingdom. One involves people with little to nothing, the other involves people who have more money than they can spend. One reads like a memoir, the other reads like a love letter. There should be nothing that connects these two very different stories to one another, except there is one key element in both. The portrayal of the women, their supposed crimes, and subsequent punishments are unfair and but unfortunately all too commonplace in society’s ongoing perpetuation of rape culture.

In The Mars Room, we get a down-and-dirty look at prison life for women and a glimpse into the milieu for which prison is one of the only options available to them. For those readers like me who grew up with a modicum of privilege, Romy’s life before her sentencing is an eye-opening experience. Ms. Kushner portrays the downtrodden – the homeless, the junkies, the alcoholics, the poorest of the poor – with dedication and delicacy, neither making excuses for them nor softening the harsh truths of their existence but doing so in a way that is not exploitative nor sensationalized. She portrays Romy’s life with empathy and an attention to detail that highlights her detailed research into the California prison system and experience of life on the streets. Given her careful research, it makes Romy’s case that much more infuriating – because you know this is one novel in which fiction is fact and that there is someone in Romy’s exact situation sitting in jail for the wrong reason and with no recourse for justice. The Mars Room is by no means an easy read, nor should it be for those who will never be forced to sell their body for money or who will never know what it feels like to literally have no food and no money to buy some. However, it is a book which should be required reading as it shines a light on the prison system and the prejudices and discrimination that exist for women within it.

While The Mars Room is a hard-hitting, behind-the-scenes true story type novel, Our Kind of Cruelty reminds me of Caroline Kepnes’ You. The problem is that Mike is no Joe, neither as well-read nor as charming. Mike’s tragic childhood does make him a sympathetic character and his love for V is as open and honest as you can get. Even while you start harboring doubts about Mike’s version of reality, you still want him to get the girl in the end. That is right until you realize towards what Ms. Hall is driving. By then, all bets are off.

Both novels are important in the light they shine on women and the justice system. The lack of justice in both novels is infuriating, which is exactly the point. In this era of heightened awareness of gender treatment, we should be outraged by the injustice both Romy and V experience because Romy and V are all women. Novels like The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are vital for increasing awareness even further and providing avenues of dialogue necessary to make much-needed changes. Women are angry, and our anger is beginning to trickle into the arts in greater numbers in hopes of fostering such dialogue. The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are two new examples of women using their anger for good and provide two fantastic examples of gender bias to use in our arguments challenging it.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility is Romy Hall’s new home, convicted to life sentence. What brought the mother of a young boy to this institution? And how can she cope with the rules that life in prison follows? Romy Hall remembers her life outside, her addiction and most of all The Mars Room where she stripped for a living. This is also where she met the man who was to change her life. Now, her life only consists of surviving, not getting in the way of the leaders or staff who have their own laws behind the bars. Life inside mirrors the outside, there are ruling classes and those ruled. And sometimes both spheres interact – often not for the better.

Rachel Kushner paints a blunt picture of life inside a prison. The idea of such a place as somewhere you can become a better person and atone for your wrongdoings is far from what she describes. It is a constant struggle of surviving and of adapting to the unwritten laws. Life is a series of disappointments, visitors who never come, news which do not reach you. And outside, there isn’t much waiting for you either.

It wasn’t that easy for me to sympathise with the protagonist Romy. This might be due to her role; even though she is inside, she remains an observer somehow. At the same time, there is so much unsaid about her that makes it difficult to form a whole picture of her. The fact that the reason for her imprisonment isn’t given immediately, on the other hand, adds to the underlying suspense of the novel. Slowly you get closer to the culminating point which reveals what happened. Additionally, the other characters are, obviously, those at the margins of society, people you wouldn’t actually socialise with and which sometimes repel you as a reader.

What I really liked is Kushner’s style of writing. The protagonist’s narration flows like a stream of consciousness which makes it quite realistic and lively. Furthermore, she often hints at what is to come without saying too much, just enough to arouse your interest. When Romy talks about her life and most of all about her future, she is quite direct – well, there isn’t much reason to embellish anything and therefore, her words sound absolutely authentic.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Romy is given two life sentences plus eight years for killing her stalker after he shows up at the apartment in a new city she'd just moved to with her young son to get away from him. Moving back and forth between her life in prison and her life beforehand, when Romy was a dancer at a strip club called The Mars Room, as well as her childhood, Rachel Kushner's novel is hard to put down. It's bleak, but Romy's voice is strong and likable. Romy is interested in the people around her and her story as well as the stories of the women around her are fascinating.

Kushner knows how to write and she writes with a light tone that keeps The Mars Room from being about misery, and is instead about the people that society has little use for. The women imprisoned in a bleak facility in Central California were destined to be there from childhoods spent in foster homes or roaming the streets. While there is a lot to say about the serious flaws in American society and failures of the justice system, this is much more of a character study of a resourceful and intelligent woman than a polemic.
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LibraryThing member kgramer
This book sucked me in from the start. You knew from the beginning that Romy was in prison, but her story was still interesting and tragic. There were no wasted words in this book - each sideline story came together at the end and impacted the climax. Loved it.
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Romy Hall is not getting out. She’s never getting out. Maybe she’s never been out. Maybe she’s always been incarcerated in this life. This awful life. In which she’s done her own share of awful, though the awful for which she is headed to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility for two life sentences plus six years seemed more like something good, something to protect her son, Jackson, and herself. There is more awful ahead. She’s getting ready for it. It’s all one. But maybe she’ll figure out how to get through the razor wire and the electric fence and the almond tree plantation. Or maybe not.

Though most of the novel is told from Romy’s perspective, Rachel Kushner moves us to a variety of points of view, different lives but maybe shared priorities. There is Gordon, the well-meaning but possibly deluded English teacher. There is Kurt, the creep. There is Doc, who was a bent cop. And interspersed are conflicting notes on alienation and community from Thoreau and the Unabomber. It is a rich tapestry. Yet Kushner never lets the writing slip into cliché or sloppy romanticism. Her characters are harsh or tender, but never dreamlike. Even the worst of them seem like human beings, though not particularly human beings you might want to meet (other than in these pages). And for Romy, there develops a hopeless hopefulness. Because in our hearts and in our minds, we know she’s never getting out.

This is exceptional writing. Reason enough to read everything else Kushner has written or will write.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“It’s hard to live on the streets. In prison, you can be someone. Life has order if you know how to do time, and I know. I’m an expert. Living in a tent is a temporary thing. You do it until you go back to prison. That’s just how it works.”

It is 2003, Romy Hall is serving 2 consecutive life sentences, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, in California. This story follows, her daily prison life, with impressive detail, it also looks back at her life, before the conviction, working at a strip club called The Mars Room, and glimpses at what led to her crime, which involves a particularly creepy, stalker.
The author really seems to have done her research here, diving deep, into the dark, psychological, complexities, of these convicted women, without the usual stereotypical tropes. The writing is deft, and uniformly strong.
This was my first novel, by Kushner, and reviews, seems to be mixed, but I was very impressed with it, throughout and look forward to reading more of her work.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This my second Rachel Kushner book. The first "The Flamthrowers" was nominated for a national book award and although I enjoyed it, it didn't measure up to its hype. This book does and more. It is an unrelenting indictment of our criminal justice system. Our country has 4.4 % of the world's population and 22% of the world's prisoners. This story of life in a woman's prison in the Central Valley of California was written based on extensive research done by Kushner. Her main character(Romy) comes from San Francisco where she grew up with an absent mother and little chance of getting out of her cycle of drugs etc. She is serving 2 life sentences for killing her stalker. The book deals with her life in prison. It shows how stacked the deck is against these inmates. 86% of all women in jails in our country were victims of sexual abuse. The life of the poor and female is portrayed in this book to show how the system does not create an environment of hope but one of despair. Kushner brings in additional characters including the women that Romy deals with in prison. There is also the stalker who she killed, the civilian teacher the comes to the prison, and a bad cop serving life sentences in a male prison. These portrayals contribute to the various factors that influence her and paint the picture of our failed correctional system. This is not a happy book but one that should be read. For me it deals with a life that I do not interact with and it was important to read this. Kushner is an excellent writer and I strongly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
This is well written. The author really captures this culture of prison life. She neither makes these people good or bad, they just are. They are where they are, flawed characters that are also very, very real people. It brings up the question though; does poverty excuse people from being responsible for violent and bad behavior? This is our October bookclub read, I may be adding more to this review after I’ve had time to think about it.… (more)
LibraryThing member over.the.edge
The Mars Room
By Rachel Kushner
Simon & Schuster


Rachel Kushners masterful style and memorable characters capture the environment and lifestyles within the Stan- ville Womens Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley so precisely and exactly, it's easy to forget this is a work of fiction.
Romy Hall, the main character is full and complicated. The relationships between prisoners and guards, prisoners and other prisoners, and prisoners with their own selves and personalities, make a statement without being overtly political. Kushner shows us the disparity and abuses of the prison system through the lives and interactions of her characters.
Rachel Kushner is a of my favorite authors because of her intelligent mastery of ideas and ideals, and her work is always insightful and compelling.
Mesmerizing. A MUST READ!! Fantabulous.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
The Mars Room is the second book I’ve read on the Man Booker award shortlist. I had read Kushner’s first book The Flamethrowers and hated it. I don’t think I finished it. This one however is very well-written. It’s about a woman, Romy, a past stripper and drug addict who is serving 2 life sentences for murdering her stalker (no spoiler, this is told in the first chapter). She is devastated by the fact she will never see her son again. Along with Romy’s story, multiple chapters also tell vignettes about the other characters, ie the teacher at the prison, a corrupt police officer in the men’s prison, some of her prison mates and at the end her stalker. It also has multiple excerpts from Ted Kosinki’s journal.
The writing is so well-done. The characters have deep introspections about life, nature, society but it always flows with the story. Note: there’s a good amount of violence and very little hope in this one. Not a pick-me-up at all! If you watched Orange is the New Black you can handle it.
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LibraryThing member SarahStenhouse
Grim reading
LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
Summary: Following the stream-of-consciousness of a few different characters, this is mostly the story of Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences in the California State prison system. Kushner’s story slips back and forth between the now and the past, so the reader slowly learns about how Ms. Hall ended up where she did. It is a gritty, realistic book that gives a fairly accurate view (as I’ve heard from prison inmates) of what women’s prison is like.

My Thoughts: I started listening to this right after it made the Booker Prize shortlist. Although I understand perfectly why it made the shortlist (the writing style is superb), I wasn’t overly impressed with the story. Don’t get me wrong…I had emotional investment in Ms. Hall, and felt the other characters were realistic and well-written. And I think Kushner achieved exactly what she set out to do: flawlessly executing the stream-of-consciousness style. I was just in the mood for a story with more plot. But this book wasn’t about plot. It was a book about character and setting. And the characters and setting were superbly written. So I will still give the book 4 stars, even though it wasn’t what I was in the mood for.
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LibraryThing member debkrenzer
This is actually two tales. One of a woman, Romy, who is in jail falsely accused and the other is a dirty cop, I can't remember his name, he wasn't worth it, who fears for his life everyday because of the people he has confined to those bars. The book tells of prison life seen from the eyes of these two characters. In the case of the woman, the story was sad but at the same time interesting.

The book starts with Romy being transported from county jail to prison in a bus with other inmates. It's sad, but by the way the people are talking on this bus you can really see their lack of knowledge. It is somewhat entertaining though.

This book is nothing like OITNB or Wentworth (both shows I watch). However, it is probably more true to Wentworth if your looking for a correlation. There are sex scenes, although it's more talk about it than anything and nothing like the ones in OITNB.

It's a dirty, gritty story about life in prison. If your looking for something fun, this is not for you. However, if you ever wondered about the days and days in a shared cell, this is a real eye-opener.

I found it to be an excellent read and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I highly recommend it if your looking for real life grittiness.

Huge thanks to the great folks at Scribner and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences for a crime she committed but is not fully recounted till the conclusion of the book which allows the reader to gain some sympathy for her situation. While the story is basically Romy's to tell, we meet a wide variety of criminals sharing prison time with her. Conan, Laura Lipps and Button are well drawn as are the people remaining on the outside: Jackson, her son and Gordon a teacher who introduces literature to the inmates.
The story works best when Romy speaks directly to the reader, unfortunately that is not always the case as many perspectives also make up the story taking the reader in and out of prison, into the past, into the present. It doesn't run smoothly.
The story didn't hold me. We, as adults, know the justice system is broken, that people make bad decisions, poverty is a detriment and lives can go very, very wrong in a blink of an eye. Yet, this story beats (no pun intended) it in to the reader, over and over again.
In its entirety, it read like a script from the Netflix serial "Orange is the New Black". I am sorry to report that The Mars Room disappointed me and I disliked the paths the author went down without supplying any resolve.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I honestly am not sure about this book. It is a simply told story of a dark side of our culture. Youth, drugs, thoughtless, almost reflexive, violence, prison life, injustice. The Mars Room is a strip club, commonly thought of as a lowlife hangout. But what if it was a safe haven for a young woman trying to start over drug free? Read it and see. No happy ending, so reader beware.… (more)
LibraryThing member DKnight0918
I enjoyed reading the different perspectives, Tony’s and Gordon’s. The diaries of Ted Kaczynski were a nice edition. I am intrigued by women going to prison, so many of them not deserving to be there. In the age of Orange is the New Black hopefully women who deserve to be free will be released. For people who want to read more books like this, especially nonfiction I recommend Out of Orange, Orange is the New Black, & Inside This Place, Not of It.

Looking forward to reading more of Kushner’s books.
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LibraryThing member kayanelson
Such a different book. The life sentence and the prison scenes were scary. Sounds like it was self-defense and a bad attorney--but was it? There were so many unanswered questions for me in the end. And who was the voice in the chapters with the different print? It bothers me that I still don't know. So did I miss something?
LibraryThing member Dreesie
Romy Hall is in Prison, serving a life sentence. This book is her reminiscing about being in county, then the buss ride up to Stanville, somewhere in the Central Valley. She mostly remembers her past--her wild childhood in San Francisco, her years working as a stripper at The Mars Room. The people she knew, the boyfriend who she is still pining over who is out there somewhere. Her son. And she talks about the women she is imprisoned with, their pasts and their present.

So, it's OK. I don't quit get why this was shortlisted (or longlisted, really). I also did not love The Flamethrowers, so I think I don't get Kushner.

The best parts, for me, were her descriptions of California and San Francisco. The errors, though, drive me crazy. Magic Mountain is not in Ventura County, it's in LA County. You don't go into Ventura County driving from LA over the Grapevine. Is this sloppiness? Or is it meant to tell us something about Romy--maybe she's not as smart as she thinks? But that feels like I am reading way too much into the author's intentions. I am guessing plain old sloppiness.
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LibraryThing member BALE
A disturbing fictionalized look at what often happens to those raised on the "wrong side of the tracks". Where poverty, lack of education, imprisoned family members, crime, addiction, violence and sexual abuse are as common as dance and music lessons, after-school sports, theater and educational vacations. It doesn't always work this way, but the odds are stacked against one born into a family with generational poverty. An engrossing and intuitive story.… (more)




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