Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Trish MacEnulty’s smooth delivery of four very different female viewpoints in The Pink House creates a rich reading experience to savor like a tasty casserole. Each narrator has a compelling story and unique problems that meld into a riveting whole.
The action centers around a women’s prison in North Florida, a story that gains authenticity from the author’s own experiences both inside and outside the prison system. It began as her dissertation at Florida State University in 1995 and underwent total revision in the years following. Perhaps the success of the TV show Orange is the New Black encouraged MacEnulty to re-release this story, first published as From May to December in 2007. In any case, seeing this powerful, passionate novel back in print is an occasion for celebration.
Two of the narrators are teachers who initiate a drama program for prisoners. Lolly, who is fighting cancer for the second time, previously held successful poetry workshops in the prison. Beloved by all, Lolly greets the neighbors, grocery store clerks, and waiters by name. Her garden overflows with flowers, and her home is full of colorful touches like painted chairs and hand-crafted items. Because she suffered from cancer as a child and lost part of a leg to the disease, she is especially attuned to the needs of others and appreciative of the beauty found in every small detail of life.
That Lolly has suffered makes the inmates love her and relate to her all the more. For example, when they ask if she has phantom pains in her stump, Nicole thinks, “We understood the idea of phantom pains. Some of us had pieces of our hearts amputated, and we hurt where there shouldn’t have been anything at all.”
The second teacher is Lolly’s younger sister Jen, a small-time actress and adjunct professor of drama at a local university. Though Jen is reluctant to participate in Lolly’s prison program, the experience transforms her life. After Jen opens up to the prisoners about her own sleazy past, they accept all she has to offer them. As the inmates perform their skits and monologues, Jen realizes they are “exquisite in their own rambunctious way.” She sees them as “real women,” “survivors with battle scars to prove it,” as opposed to the perfect models we see in television commercials. Zach, a cop who accepts Jen for what she is now rather than what she’s done in the past, also transforms her life. Perhaps most important of all, Jen forges a new relationship with her sister Lolly, shedding resentment of the ill sibling who consumed every lick of parental attention.
Both Jen and Lolly become involved in the lives of the incarcerated women in ways that extend far beyond the classroom. They take risks to help these women turn their lives around. The behavior is not surprising from Lolly since she always puts others first. The self-indulgent Jen, on the other hand, is surprised to learn that giving of yourself to others can bring such satisfaction.
Even though the novel begins and ends with the journal of an inmate, Jen’s story has the fullest dimension. Her convincing evolution from a drunk making lousy life choices to an adult capable of love, charity, and even nobility serves as a fine example of a woman coming into her own.
Two inmates narrate a portion of the novel. The first, Nicole, is an African-American college student, who writes her tale in journal form. Her big sin: being too crazy about a man to think clearly. She’s doing time because she foolishly took the fall for a drug rap for her lover Antwan. He convinced her she wouldn’t serve time for a first offense, while it would have been the third time for him.
Another inmate, Sonya, is the mother of a toddler, yearning to be reunited with her little boy. Born into a family of Polish traveling criminals, the only life she’s known has been conning others out of their money. Until she was imprisoned, she never considered the victims of her crimes. A fellow inmate despises Sonya for ruining her brother’s life in the nastiest con she participated in. For the first time, Sonya must face the consequences of her crimes and wonders if there is any way to right the wrongs.
Although she isn’t a narrator, Alice—or Indian as she is often called—stands out as the prison philosopher. She ruminates that “what we think we’re doing to someone else, we’re really doing to ourselves.” She shot a man, and reflects that she “killed something in [herself], something [she’ll] never get back.” Alice also shares that, while she doesn’t like being shut away in prison, maybe “we’re always in prisons.” This concept carries throughout the novel with Lolly confined to her ill body, Jen trapped by her past, Nicole consumed by her obsession with Antwan, and Sonya blocked from a normal life by her family.
MacEnulty has a gift of making us care about each of the characters. Right along with Lolly and Jen, we hope these prisoners can turn their lives around when they are released.
Being a prison novel, the obligatory fight scene and the repressed sexual energy are present, but they serve as background, overshadowed in importance by the rapport developed among classmates and teachers in the drama class. The opportunity to wield language as a new kind of weapon to tell their stories is freeing and empowering for the inmates, as it is for any writer.
Widely published, MacEnulty’s works include Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter’s Memoir, The Language of Sharks, Picara, and Sweet Fire. She is currently an Associate Professor of English at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, where she teaches writing, communication, and film classes.
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