By David Hopen
To be transported, wholesale, into a new and unfamiliar world is one of literature’s great gifts, and the opening pages of David Hopen’s ambitious debut novel, “The Orchard,” promise exactly that. The world in question is a strict Orthodox Jewish enclave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and our narrator is one Aryeh (Ari) Eden, the only intellectually curious student at Torah Temimah, an “academic travesty” of a yeshiva full of Yiddish-speaking rabbis who “refused to teach anything vaguely related to evolution.” Ari’s educational savior is his mother, who, having grown up in a less rigorously traditional household than his Torah-thumping father, pushes her son to read secular works to supplement the yeshiva’s unending focus on religious study.
Hopen is a stylish, atmospheric writer whose characters inhabit sensuous tableaus, and the palpable dreariness that lingers over Ari’s solitary Brooklyn childhood is all-encompassing. “I was sick of enduring relentless, Chekhovian boredom, sitting alone in libraries, mourning what I’d never know: torturous love, great voyages, nostos.” Salvation — or at least escape — arrives at the end of Ari’s junior year of high school, when his father loses his accounting job, only to be offered a fresh start in Florida by a shady family connection: an uncle known for “peddling disastrous investments” in, among other things, “a company that sold malfunctioning vacuum cleaners.” (I kept waiting for Hopen to return to this story line, ripe as it is for development, but he barely mentions it again.)
The fictional Zion Hills is a wealthy Jewish suburb of Miami, where mansions have Olympic-size swimming pools, and — as Evan Stark, a brilliant but enigmatic classmate at Ari’s new (and far more lax) “modern Orthodox” academy, tells him — “everyone has a Chagall.” Evan is part of a wealthy clique of fast-living seniors who quickly (and mysteriously) accept Ari as one of their own. “I overheard whispers in the halls, noticed faculty members gawking at the sight of the poorly dressed, wildly self-conscious Brooklyn expatriate climbing into extravagant cars,” Ari narrates, as his former life — of books and prayer and hushed family dinners — begins to slip away, to be replaced by alcohol, drugs, decadent parties and the first painful pangs of young love.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]
But Ari’s tale of innocence lost is a mere jumping-off point for Hopen’s novel, which turns to life’s deeper questions with the help of Rabbi Bloom, the school’s charismatic, intellectually rigorous principal, who begins holding secret salon-like gatherings with Ari, Evan and two other boys (Hopen’s female characters tend toward the archetypical, and have a bad habit of appearing only when the plot turns to romance). The rigorous discussions — which blend poetry, literature, philosophy and a too-heavy dose of the Torah — become increasingly intense with each passing month, as the boys debate classic questions of faith and suffering, guilt and tragedy. What’s the meaning of death? Does God exist? And if so, can a mortal being unlock the “revelations of this higher world”?