Monday, April 5, 2021

The Orchard - David Hopen

Summary: Ari Eden’s life has always been governed by strict rules. In ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, his days are dedicated to intense study and religious rituals, and adolescence feels profoundly lonely. So when his family announces that they are moving to a glitzy Miami suburb, Ari seizes his unexpected chance for reinvention.Enrolling in an opulent Jewish academy, Ari is stunned by his peers’ dizzying wealth, ambition, and shameless pursuit of life’s pleasures. When the academy’s golden boy, Noah, takes Ari under his wing, Ari finds himself entangled in the school’s most exclusive and wayward group. These friends are magnetic and defiant—especially Evan, the brooding genius of the bunch, still living in the shadow of his mother’s death.

Influenced by their charismatic rabbi, the group begins testing their religion in unconventional ways. Soon Ari and his friends are pushing moral boundaries and careening toward a perilous future—one in which the traditions of their faith are repurposed to mysterious, tragic ends.

Mesmerizing and playful, heartrending and darkly romantic, The Orchard probes the conflicting forces that determine who we become: the heady relationships of youth, the allure of greatness, the doctrines we inherit, and our concealed desires. (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I feel like I haven’t read a book like this for a long time. It’s a long book, and although it doesn’t encompass a really extensive amount of time, per se, it goes so deep into the character and the time that it feels very intimate. Let me back up here. From the description of the book listed above, you can see that it’s a coming of age novel, and that it takes place in a very specific part of society i.e. an all-Jewish high school. Ari comes from a very small and strict Jewish high school, and then is moved to a larger school in a wealthier area. This brings about friends that have way more access to wealth and worldly things, and, to no surprise to anyone, with this comes access to pricier temptations such as alcohol, fast cars, and drugs.

It was really interesting reading about the Jewish high school and the teachings of Judaism, and I can tell that Hopen really wanted to discuss some deep ideas because there was a lot of time spent in an exclusive classroom with a rabbi intent on pushing intellectual limits of a hand-picked class of students. I didn’t find these talks to be exhausting, although there were definitely a lot of them and I feel like they could have been trimmed a little. I did enjoy the deep intellectual conversation, but I’m not sure the extent of it was necessary to moving the story along. It did feel like Hopen wanted to explore some ideas of his own and used this book as a vehicle. Because the book was so long anyway, trimming these conversations here and there might have added to the more mass appeal. So consider yourself warned, here. This is a good story. It really is. It’s a story that is fleshed out in ways that many characters are never allowed. We really know the characters, and they feel like real people. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a telling of people Hopen really knew. The characters, especially the main characters, were nuanced and rich and felt like real humans. When I read coming of age stories I appreciate characters like this. It gives the story life.

I wouldn’t consider this a potboiler in that you have to READREADREAD all night until the book is over. In fact, I had to check it out two different times because it is long and sometimes I wanted something that I could just speed read through and not have to think a lot. However, there is definitely value in a book that gives you a story and a life so realistic feeling that you understand the culture and the place in which that book takes places, and this is that sort of book. Don’t get me wrong—there are some parts that are definitely exciting and exhilarating. There is love and loss and drama, just as there is in real life. In fact, I could venture to say that there is more of this than in a normal life. Because of the way the story is written, you feel immersed in a way of life that allows you to really partake of the richness of it. Although I was not raised in a Jewish high school, I appreciated learning in depth about what it would be like to do so. Those who are raised in a Jewish high school may appreciate the way in which Hopen brings them along in a way that I can’t help but feel would be familiar.

If you are in to coming of age stories, especially ones that are really interesting and deep, both intellectually and narratively, this is your book. I enjoyed it, and appreciated its writing, story, and exploration of a life unfamiliar to me.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language, drug use, mild sexual innuendos, and some disturbing destructive and violent behavior.

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