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The Orchard by David Hopen

I recommend The Orchard by David Hopen

A review about this book

As this coming-of-age story begins, Aryeh Eden is a 17 year-old living in Williamsburg, an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, with his parents, attending a rundown school and spending his days and nights with either his family or his friends either studying, or observing religious rites and rules. He appears to be neither unhappy nor happy, merely following an uneventful life that was prescribed for him without giving much thought to any alternative. Even with his friends, he seems to be emotionally isolated, living apart from the life that exists outside of this neighborhood. He never seems to give much thought to his future, until one day he is forced to consider living somewhere else.

When Ari’s father seeks new employment, his parents are concerned about taking him out of the environment where he has lived his life thus far, and moving to a less strict Orthodox neighborhood near Miami called Zion Hills, in Florida. A more worldly neighborhood that bears no resemblance to his Williamsburg neighborhood, a neighborhood that to most appears more glamorous, and is certainly more affluent, although once they move there, they live in a much smaller, less expensive home than their neighbors. Still, it is at least twice the size of their old apartment in Brooklyn, and offers Ari more privacy.

He is invited to his neighbor’s pool party almost immediately after moving in, a boy his age – both will be entering their senior year in high school at the same Jewish Academy very soon – a boy who is popular among the popular students, who also happen to be atypically well-read, smart students, but they are also students who enjoy partying perhaps a bit too much. Since they include the basketball players as well as some of the best students, and they know how to contrive and maneuver a story, what trouble they’ve been in up until now has been relatively underplayed. When he arrives at this party, he is both a bit overwhelmed by the absence of yarmulkes, as well as the lack of some protocols he considers standards of living according to how he was raised. At the same time as he feels overwhelmed, perhaps unnerved by these changes, there is also a sense of exhilaration of the freedom he senses, as well. A change in location, for him, brings about new prospects – some of which he fears, but on another level years for. Once school begins, unlike his old school where most of his classmates flirted with illiteracy, he may no longer stand out as one of the smarter students, as he is not only behind in some areas, but among his new classmates he doesn’t stand out quite as starkly in a sea of well-read students who have been raised to strive for elite colleges, and lucrative careers seemingly since birth. What Ari does have that separates him, for me, was a choice to better himself, his future, and his life. It is a choice that he seems to struggle with periodically, with somewhat typical teenage angst, but there is more to him, more to his struggle than that.

This has been likened to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I haven’t read, so I can’t say. There is an element of this that reminded me a bit of Dead Poets Society, the bond that grows between a group of young boys-on-the-verge-of-manhood, a secretive ‘society’ in its own way. What I can say is that I found this to be a mesmerizing story, the kind where you almost want to look away once in a while, but can’t bring yourself to close your eyes or turn away.

Mesmerizing, spellbinding, immersive, beautifully written, thoroughly engaging debut novel that is shared in such an intimate style it makes these people, their experiences and these places come alive. To say that I was impressed seems vastly inadequate.