I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, Ecco, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
“…some find God while trying to lose Him…others lose God while trying to find Him.”
I have a terrible weakness for dark academia novels, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until very recently. I read the O.G. of the genre, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, first the first time at the beginning of this year. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it, but it immediately became an instant favorite. I also adore any book that delves deep into religion or philosophy or, even better, the intersection of both. David Hopen managed to combine both the academic setting and the religious contemplation that I love so much in his debut(!!) novel, The Orchard.
“God is someone—something—we’ll always need. He is the adversary against which we rage and the comfort for which we yearn.”
My knee-jerk response to this story when I started getting into it was to affix a label to it. The Secret History: Jewish Orthodox Edition. But that would be doing Hopen’s book a huge disservice, as it was much more deliberate and original than such a label could convey. This is the tale of Ari Eden, a teenage Jew raised in a deeply Orthodox small community in Brooklyn, and how radically his life changes when his family moves to a much richer and more laid back Jewish community in Florida. We see the internal struggle between upbringing and peer pressure, personal integrity and curiosity. And through it all, the narrative is deeply tied up in questions of God’s identity, of how best to experience His presence. I found the dichotomy better this search and more normal teenaged angst fascinating.
“There are ways to find strength within faith, even when faith is shattered, even when faith reduces, at best, to doubt.”
Ari and the group of friends into which he somehow stumbles did remind me very much of The Secret History. That dynamic, as well as their group’s special relationship with an educational authority figure, were half of where I found similarities between that novel and this one. The other big correlation was the group’s pursuit of divine knowledge by, pardon the wordplay, unorthodox means. But the trappings of an exclusive Jewish Orthodox high school versus a nameless Ivy League were pretty radically different, though this was the least YA cast of teenagers in tone of writing I’ve ever come across. The religiosity of both school and extracurricular life is very unusual for an outsider. I was raised in a deeply Christian household, and yet I was blown away by how radically every aspect of life was dictated by beliefs, and how easily some members of the community ignored those dictates while others took them very much to heart. I learned an incredible amount about a culture I thought I knew. Another big difference between Ari and Richard, the perspective character in The Secret History, is that Ari struck me as far more three-dimensional. I believe Richard was intentionally crafted to seem almost flat in comparison to those around him, so that is in no way a slight. I just found Ari more sympathetic and compelling in his own right.
“Do you know what they want out of me? Harmless perfection. Normal extraordinariness.”
If you loved The Secret History but thought it could use more Talmud and philosophical discussions about God, The Orchard is the book for you. But despite my inability to discuss one without the other, I do truly believe that two novels, though both exquisite, are worlds apart. Hopen’s debut is a gorgeously written, lovingly crafted work of art that I believe will find a devoted, and hopefully huge, following. It stretched my mind in the best of ways.
You can order this book from: Bookshop.org (Support independent bookstores!) | Amazon UK | Amazon US | Audible | Libro.fm (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping)