David Hopen’s ambitious debut novel combines the religiously observant world of Chaim Potok’s books with the academic hothouse of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observations of the rich and privileged.
The Orchard follows a year in the life of 17-year-old Aryeh Eden after his family moves from an insular Orthodox community in Brooklyn to a wealthy Florida suburb. A senior in high school and completely unprepared for the process of college applications, Aryeh enrolls at an elite Jewish school with a student body so entitled that his classmates plan to drive their luxury cars straight to their preferred Ivy League campuses. Aryeh is befriended by golden boy Noah and his group of privileged friends, including stoner Oliver and competitive Amir. Their constant drug use, partying and sexual activity is as alluring to Aryeh as it is disturbing. Aryeh is especially drawn to Sophia, whose sad-eyed glamour holds a myriad of secrets, not least of which involve her old boyfriend Evan, a charismatic bad boy whose transgressions are constantly overlooked by the school even when his antics escalate and become life-threatening.
Weekly meetings with school headmaster Rabbi Bloom offers opportunities for the thoughtful Aryeh to explore deeper issues in Jewish scripture and philosophy, but it doesn’t compare with the secular pleasures on offer, and he finds himself repeatedly drawn in to dangerous situations.
Though Hopen is tuned in to Aryeh’s toxic mix of advanced intellectual abilities and low self-esteem, the novel suffers from underdeveloped female characters who exist as unattainable objects rather than individuals with plans and dreams of their own. In addition, the thorny philosophical debates held by Aryeh and his male friends lack the subtlety needed to make fictional events seem possible.
Acknowledging these considerable shortcomings, The Orchard is still a suspenseful novel with a brisk pace and a surprising outcome. Thoughtful depictions of the range of religious experience and practice make it a singular addition to the world of Jewish fiction as well as a notable variation on the classic campus novel.