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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Literary fiction

The Mars Room

by Rachel Kushner

Quick take

Romy Hall: dancer, mother, drug user, convict. The Mars Room is the brutal story of her life behind bars.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

Illustrated icon, Icon_VeryChallenging_Indicator

Challenging read

This novel follows an unconventional plot structure and contains multiple experimental tangents. Prepare for unlikable characters and strong motifs of drug abuse and violence.

Why I love it

Siobhan Jones
BOTM Editorial Team

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a fun escape! I'm serious. Look, the whole team here at BOTM is behind The Mars Room. We think it’s gritty, unapologetic, and searingly memorable. The author has burrowed her way into the oft-ignored world of the women's correctional facility and beckoned us in after to bear witness to hell on earth. Not everyone will enjoy this. But I would argue that the book’s darkness is what makes it so great.

Romy Hall is 28 years old. She’s a mother, a lifetime drug user, and she’s facing two back-to-back life sentences. Through her newcomer eyes, we become brusquely acquainted with prison life: its petty squabbles, inedible cafeteria meals, the sharp-elbowed friendships, and a thousand punitive rules. We also learn her backstory—a neglected childhood, a beer-drenched San Francisco upbringing—and how things went off the rails at a seedy club called the Mars Room.

Okay, you’re thinking, like Orange is the New Black, but not funny? Not quite. This book contains multitudes (diary entries by the Unabomber, for example, or a chapter relayed by Romy’s stalker) that a television show would gloss over. You might not like every narrator. Hell, you might not like a narrative bereft of hope. But The Mars Room offers up one nugget of hard-spun truth after another, dispensed with the snare drum-tight precision of a writer at the height of her craft. It challenges. It dazzles. And yes, it frustrates. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

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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.

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, a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America.

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Member thoughts

All (3467)
All (3467)
Love (756)
Like (1665)
Dislike (1046)
3629 ratings
  • 21% Love
  • 46% Like
  • 29% Dislike
  • La Junta, CO

    I fell in love with Romy, London, Sammy, and the whole cast. It really opens ones eyes to the struggles of society’s “criminal” outcasts. It stresses how life changing an in the moment decision can be

  • Olympia , WA

    The theme is so intense and the real world problems facing these characters created a story I couldn’t put down. I still think of this book often, recommend it to serious readers as it’s a heavy read

  • Tigard, OR

    This is not a good time, relaxing read. The Mars Room is intense. That being said, it’s a really good intense. The intertwining tales of prison life from many perspectives is gripping and fascinating.


    This book resonated with me on so many levels because of my connection to the locations referenced throughout the book. You really felt the character’s struggle as it related to the specific setting

  • Arlington, VA

    Really insightful, interesting (though depressing) read about the US prison system. I understand some reviewers had trouble jumping between story lines, but really I was only confused for at the start

  • Brentwood, TN

    Gives realistic insight to a population that is not often seen or written about. It is evident that the author spent a lot of time researching the topic. The writing style is unique. Thought-provoking

  • Chicago, IL

    Often, the reality of life is that circumstances and situations don't end up wrapped up into a perfect package. In this way, The Mars Room is one of the truest portrayals of a life left to the system.

  • Lodi, CA

    I didn’t like Kushner’s previous novel but this one blew me away. It’s a quiet, poignant, and emotionally wrenching look at what it means to be caught in the prison system. Heartbreakingly raw.

  • Helena, MT

    A dark, gritty, & brutally honest book about the failings of the US prison & justice systems. Kushner's complex, dignified characters & rule-breaking writing make for a provocative & ruminative read.

  • Apex, NC

    This novel is a social commentary on the injustices that occur in our legal system and also, in our prisons. Told through the experiences of Romy Hall; she's serving two life sentences. VERY MOVING!

  • North Mankato, MN

    Rachel Kushner pulled me into her world of the broken justice system and opened my eyes wide open. Her novel broke my heart and forced me to look injustice straight in the face and she never let go.

  • Lakeland , FL

    I loved this book. The entire book had a hopeless and regretful tone. It was realistic while still adding a romantic flare to a hard life. It may not be a book for everyone, but I really enjoyed it.

  • las cruces, NM

    This book is fantastic.It is sincere and I found myself just taking moments to breathe in between the pages because of how well the author just captured those little profound moments in life.Powerful

  • Aurora, CO

    The relationships built in this book are really well done and feel genuine. I felt like a few characters and stories were picked up and went nowhere, but that didn't hamper the overall experience.

  • Germantown, MD

    Excellent writing, compelling setting, and a story that drew me in on the first page! Told from multiple points of view - some sections are stronger than others - this novel has intrigue and depth.

  • Elkton, MD

    Reminds me of Orange is the New Black. I enjoy the coming of age aspect of it, as much as the crime stories. Pulls you in right away. Strong females living on the dark side, gave me some new views.

  • Saint George, UT

    A book about a place, Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, and the men and women who are drawn into its confines seemingly haplessly. I loved it and the contradictory nature of its characters.

  • Stanhope, NJ

    This book was like a non-comical, hardened version of Orange is the New Black. The main character, though at times absolutely heart-wrenching, kept me entertained and her stories were truly unique.

  • Louisville , KY

    Very moving & slightly hard to read, yet I couldn’t put it down! Loved how all the stories were different and also intertwined, which kept the book interesting and unique. Left me wanting more.


    Thought provoking, and heartbreaking. Despite the POV changes and non-linear timeline, you really feel for these women. Yes, the've made mistakes, but also had terrible circumstances. Recommended!

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