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 ... 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 ... Ari’s once-engaging story line — steeped in very real questions of morality and devotion — is subsumed by long pages of arcane, hyper-intellectual teenage discussions of the kind that make one relieved to be firmly entrenched in adulthood. Indeed, the second half of the novel reads like the literary equivalent of a mood board, stuffed full of overlapping ideas and asides, plots and tangents — part thriller, part religious inquiry, part love story, and part Tarttian homage. Hopen packs in so much that The Orchard, which began as heightened realism, soon pushes well beyond the point of plausibility. Perhaps, then, it is a story about faith after all. And the lesson, for a writer like Hopen, would be not to lose it. His talent is evident, his knowledge abundant. But one word has eluded him: streamlining.
This is a brilliantly conceived and crafted coming-of-age novel of ideas, replete with literary and philosophical references, many of them Judaic. Indeed, the novel almost demands familiarity with Judaism, its culture, rituals, and vocabulary. Happily, though, this doesn’t compromise in any way the larger metaphysical meanings of the novel.
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 ... 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 ... Acknowledging these considerable shortcomings, The Orchard is still a suspenseful novel with a brisk pace and a surprising outcome ... a notable variation on the classic campus novel.
Though Hopen presents a somewhat formulaic story of the journey from child to adult, he renders it compelling by inserting discussions of Jewish and other religious traditions and making mental health—or lack thereof.
[A]n entirely surprising tale, rich with literary allusions and Talmudic connections, about the powerful allure of belonging ... Hopen’s debut may actually have more in common with campus novels like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tobias Wolff’s Old School; its narrator’s involvement in an intense intellectual community leads him down an unexpected path that profoundly alters his worldview ... Hopen’s prose, and the scale of his project, occasionally feels overindulgent, but in that sense, form and content converge: This stylistic expansiveness is actually perfectly in tune with the world of the novel. Overall, Hopen’s debut signals a promising new literary talent; in vivid prose, the novel thoughtfully explores cultural particularity while telling a story with universal resonances.
I found myself drawn to Evan’s interactions with Ari. The headmaster tries pitting them against each other, as they both think on a higher philosophical plane. It was enthralling to hear their conversations about finding God, morality and the true self. Their discussion carried over to actions in the real world, which was fascinating ... As someone with little experience in Judaism, I struggled with certain references, but debut author David Hopen does a good job of explaining various concepts and stories. Though The Orchard is very much dark academia, it perfectly captures the essence of the high school experience. I highly recommend it to readers of The Secret History and those who are interested in the Jewish faith.
Hopen commingles religious philosophy and dangerous behavior in his ambitious debut ... Though the students’ lengthy philosophical and scriptural debates initially seem ponderous, their thematic connections become increasingly apparent as the novel nears its moving climax. This isn’t your average campus novel, and despite its lumps, is all the better for it.