Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine, 2013)

Jodi Picoult is the Law and Order author of our times. She uses stories “ripped from the headlines” as seeds for her plotlines and, thus, presents readers with a framework in which to discuss important societal issues, such as school shootings, teen suicides, and organ transplants. Picoult’s writing is compelling, and many of her passages are written artfully. I know that when I pick up a Picoult to read that I am in for a satisfying experience.

Leaving Time, published in 2013, is so engaging that I had to get up at 3:00 in the morning to finish the last 100 pages. The novel carries two plotlines. The first is that of Jenna Metcalf, a precocious thirteen year old,  as she searches for her mother, Alice, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances ten years before. The second plotline is that of Alice, who had studied the behavior of elephants in the wilds of Botswana to better understand the way in which pachyderms deal with grief.

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The threads of the two stories are woven through the use of multiple character point of view, which has been overused greatly by contemporary writers as a cheesy way to jump from character to character. However, Picoult employs the multiple character point of view so that it is essential in building to the novel’s climax, which is a shocker that is unpredictable. In fact, when the novel was released, Picoult implored reviewers not to include spoilers when they wrote about the book. Suffice it to say that when I completed the novel, I knew that I would want to re-read it in the not too distant future so that I could decipher the seeds that had been planted for the “WOW” ending. It’s that good.

The chapters that are narrated by Alice, Jenna’s missing mother, are poignant portraits of elephant behavior, not only in the savannas of Africa, but in captivity as well. Her heart wrenching anecdotes on the elephants are based on true stories of the elephants kept at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Picoult gathered information about the creatures there (and changed the names to protect the innocent) to incorporate actual research about the huge mammals into her story, which she has done beautifully.

Also important in the message of Picoult’s work is that the world needs to come together to protect endangered animals, such as the elephants who have been plundered for their valuable ivory tusks. In the following passage taking from journals that Alice had written about her research, Lorato, a mother elephant, comes charging toward her son, Kenosi, who has been injured gravely by a hunter. Alice writes, “She reached out to Kenosi, stroking his body from tail to trunk, paying special attention to the spot where the snare wire had cut into his hide. She stepped over his massive bulk, standing above him the way a mother would protect her calf. She was secreting from her temporal glands, dark streaks marking the side of her head. Even as the bull herd moved away, even as Lorato’s breeding herd joined her and reached out to touch Kenosi, she refused to move. The sun fell, the moon rose, and still she stood, unable or unwilling to leave him.

How do you say good-bye?

That night, there were meteor showers. It seemed to me that even the sky was weeping.”

How could this woman, Alice, who wrote so passionately about the death of an elephant child, have left her own toddler? How could the woman who had written in her journal “Once a mother, always a mother,” have abandoned her own daughter? This is the question that has plagued the adolescent Jenna since she was old enough to realize that her mother was gone from her life, while her other parent, her father, was locked up permanently in a mental institution? How could her mother have gone off and orphaned her?

In the other plotline, narrated by the uniquely savvy Jenna, wise beyond her years,  Jenna enlists the services of a disgraced psychic, Serenity Jones, who had once had her own t.v. show and served as a conduit to the occult for celebrities, and the former lead detective on her mother’s case, Virgil Stanhope, now a P.I. with a penchant for alcohol, to help her untangle the web regarding her mom’s disappearance. The unlikely trio form a bond that leads them to a quest which takes them across the country to another elephant preserve, and puts Jenna in imminent danger.

The exciting chase across the continent, the shocking revelation at the novel’s end, are the products of an author who knows how to play with the emotions of her readers. This novel is truly a special one that can be enjoyed as one curls up in front of a warm winter fire. Don’t miss Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time.