Olivia Goldsmith is best known as one of the first ladies of "chick lit." She writes "the wrath of a woman scorned" with punch and panache, and serves up stories that are as frothy and frivolous as cappuccino.
But in "Pen Pals," she does significantly more.
Like Goldsmith's other books, "Pen Pals" focuses on a woman who's been hard done by. And like Goldsmith's other books, the villain of the piece is a man. But unlike "The First Wives Club," "The Switch," or any other Goldsmith I've read, "Pen Pals" offers up far more than just a good story an a few laughs.
"Pen Pals" tells the story of Jennifer Spencer, a high-powered wheeler dealer who takes the fall for her boss and finds herself in a women's penitentiary. Abandoned by her lawyer / fiance and unrewarded by her thankless boss, Jennifer has to find a way to survive "inside." In doing so, she comes in contact with some remarkable female characters: thieves, and murderers, and drug dealers who are also wives and mothers and friends. She also comes in contact with some hard truths about the choices she's made.
But "Pen Pals" is more than just the story of Jennifer Spencer and the rest of Goldsmith's compelling cast of characters. It's also a story about the criminal justice system, and its impact on women in prison. It's a story about privatization of prisons and what that means in human terms. And it's a story about what can happen when the wealthy and privileged get a peek at what it's like to be poor and powerless in America.
This book is well-researched, compassionately written, and (amazingly enough) remains bright, witty, and uplifting even while tackling some difficult terrain.
One quick word of warning: this book was also published under the title "Insiders," with a very different cover. If you've read that, don't buy this!