Published: Feb. 22, 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Genre: Contemporary, verse novel
Received: From library
Summary (from Goodreads): After a classmate commits suicide, Kana Goldberg—a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American—wonders who is responsible. She and her cliquey friends said some thoughtless things to the girl. Hoping that Kana will reflect on her behavior, her parents pack her off to her mother’s ancestral home in Japan for the summer. There Kana spends hours under the hot sun tending to her family’s mikan orange groves.
Kana’s mixed heritage makes it hard to fit in at first, especially under the critical eye of her traditional grandmother, who has never accepted Kana’s father. But as the summer unfolds, Kana gets to know her relatives, Japan, and village culture, and she begins to process the pain and guilt she feels about the tragedy back home. Then news about a friend sends her world spinning out of orbit all over again.
I feel like I would have enjoyed Orchards a lot more if I’d read it when I was younger – middle school, maybe. This isn’t a negative thing; it just feels more like a novel that a tween or early teen would like and relate to than something I would. Besides the use of “bitch” and the topic of suicide, there’s not much in here that would be inappropriate for, say, a twelve year old, and most twelve year olds I know have heard all of that before. And, seeing as the character whose suicide kicks off the plot is an eighth grader, I’d say suicide is a subject relevant to readers that age. I personally had trouble identifying with Kana, very likely due to her age, but also because I just… didn’t get a good grasp on her as a character, I guess, which is hugely important when your novel is narrated in first-person voice and everything we’re reading is your narrator’s personal thoughts. The story, although definitely intriguing with the culture clash between Kana’s American upbringing and her family’s very Japanese values, didn’t really pick up until 260 or so pages out of 325 (the numbers on my page count differ from the ones Goodreads gives, for some reason) which in my opinion is far too long, and the sudden spike in pace and intensity felt very jarring.
The verse didn’t really grab me, either – it didn’t read like poetry, but like chopped-up sentences. I found myself mentally moving around the line breaks throughout the book, adding commas or periods to the end of sentences in my head – which, while it may be just my personal preference, was seriously distracting.
(Another personal gripe – all these YA novels about suicide from an outsider’s perspective, and I can only think of a few – much less successful – written from the point of view of someone who is suicidal themselves. I realize that it’s probably more easy to relate to, for readers who haven’t had any first-hand experience with being suicidal. But to me, it just feels… really, really patronizing. Very rarely do we get to tell our own stories, or have them told from our own perspectives; it’s always the story of the grieving friend, the bully who takes things too far, the bystander who let it happen, and how someone else’s actions effect them, and isn’t suicide terrible because of that? Well, yes. I don’t mean to invaldiate the experiences who’s lost someone they cared about to suicide or had to deal with a loved one’s attempt, because obviously, that’s a horrible thing to go through. But the fact that someone feels there’s no choice but to end their life, that someone has a little voice in their head telling them it would be better for everyone if they just died, that someone feels so tired and worn down by the world that they can see no other way – that’s terrible, too, and terrifying to notice those thoughts in your head. So, yeah. More first-person stories about this subject, please, I beg of you. Rant over now.)
The reason I picked up this novel, the fact that it takes place in Japan, does not disappoint. Kana’s mother’s relatives are very traditional, as most of Japan is, and if you’re new to Japanese culture and traditions Orchards is a good place to start learning about it through fiction. One of my favorite parts of the book was the scenes during Obon, a Japanese Buddhist holiday where families come together to perform a ceremony to guide home the spirits of their ancestors. It’s one of the sections that didn’t distract me with my own personal annoyances about the verse, and quite honestly, it’s beautiful. (It also put a pretty big smile on my face when Kana said that “it would just be easier to give the spirits GPS-activated cell phones.” This sounds exactly like something my cousin, around Kana’s age, would say.)
Although I’m not in the target audience for Orchards, and I feel like my enjoyment of it suffered for that, I actually found myself quite fond of it by the time I turned the last page. Issues with the verse format and its choppiness aside, this is a very sweet story despite some of the subject matter and one that I think middle-grade readers could learn a lot from, about not only Japanese culture but also grief, family, and moving forwards.
(Also, the cover! It would be absolutely gorgeous if only the font for the author’s name and “a novel” fit better with the rest of it – they do, however, help to tip the reader off that this is aimed just a little below YA. But those colors, my god, they are fantastic. I want my room painted that shade of blue!)