The Orchard by David Hopen ARC Review

I’m not sure what drew me to The Orchard when NetGalley offered it to me. Perhaps it was the coming-of-age story, perhaps it was the fish-out-of-water story, perhaps it was because I wanted to read about a religion other than my own. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy in exchange for my honest opinion. The Orchard will be released to the general public on November 17, 2020.

From the publisher:

A commanding debut and a poignant coming-of-age story about a devout Jewish high school student whose plunge into the secularized world threatens everything he knows of himself

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.”

I had a really hard time getting into The Orchard. I’m not Jewish, and there is so much terminology with which I am unfamiliar, I had to make educated guesses on what certain words meant, or spend extra time looking them up. I disagree with other reviewers who say you don’t have to be Jewish to love this story. I think this story was written for a particular audience, and as a Roman Catholic, middle-aged woman, I’m not it. And I don’t know if it was because of that, but I didn’t realize until I was 10% into the book, when someone mentions texting, that the book takes places in the modern day; I honestly thought it was written about the 1950s or so, based on Ari’s strict Orthodox upbringing.

Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for teen angst, but I never really found myself immersed in the book. I thought it implausible that Ari would fall so easily into the gang of “cool people” just because he lived next door to Noah. In my high school world, especially senior year, it would be very hard to break into that exclusive circle of friends who had been together for years. And the interest from Sophie, the smartest, most popular, prettiest girl (and class president) seemed disingenuous.

And I don’t think any of my distance to the book had anything to do with the Jewish faith discussed in the book. As an adult, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders and found the kids to be a bunch of whiny kids, so clearly, I am not the target audience (although when I was a teen, I loved those same books).

About half way through the book, Hopen throws us into the deep end of Jewish culture, belief, and philosophy, and I just couldn’t get into it. Philosophizing is not for me. Like I said, maybe I wasn’t in a teen angst mood when I read it, but as an adult, I couldn’t connect with Ari or any of his friends, which is surprising. Evan’s mother died and he’s sort of in a tailspin, and the same thing happened to me in high school (my dad died freshman year), but I couldn’t feel sorry for his self-destructive path. I got angry at him for acting out, so I guess that’s a sign of good writing if it extracts such strong feelings from the reader.

I tried, I really did, but I just didn’t enjoy this book. I’ll keep expanding my outlook and reading about other cultures, but The Orchard just didn’t do it for me. If you are of the Jewish faith and are looking for a YA book that discusses being an Orthodox Jew versus a more modern interpretation of the faith, this might be the book for you.

(Just a reminder I’m giving away a $10 Amazon eGift Card. Click here to read more and to enter!)

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