Jodi Picoult is one of our greatest storytellers. She is able to conjure up characters that not only feel real, but who move about in their scripted days as though they were real, rather than some kind of deeply entrenched literary flim-flammery to a haute degree. Her story lines are not only believable, they are relatable; her worlds are our worlds, the emotions her characters struggle with are familiar to us, the obstacles they must overcome are not larger than life, they are exactly like our own lives, and yet still they are gripping, oftentimes humorous, oftentimes bewildering, always beautiful even when they break.
In her newest novel, Leaving Time, we are introduced to Jenna Metcalf, a thirteen year old who lives with her grandmother in a middle class town in New Hampshire. Her father is still alive but confined to a psychiatric hospital, where he lives in his own version of the world that has little relation to reality. Her mother? Well, Jenna’s not sure about her mother – where she is, what her life is like. Her mother disappeared when Jenna was three. And where other thirteen year old girls are discovering things like the newest color of lip gloss, the latest exploits of the members of One Direction, or even the novels of Jane Austen, Jenna is obsessed with finding her mother.
Both Jenna’s parents used to be scientists. Her mother, Alice, was (and possibly still is) a naturalist and researcher, specializing in elephant behavior. Thomas, her father, ran the New England Elephant Sanctuary, which took in poor beasts from circuses and zoos that had been deemed too unpredictable or too dangerous to be on display or near the public. The two met when Thomas visited Botswana to observe elephants in the wild; Alice was there doing postdoctoral work on elephant cognition – specifically, elephant grief. Eventually Alice moved to New Hampshire to continue her studies, to help Thomas run the sanctuary – and to start an unexpected but adored family.
Then one evening when Jenna was three, tragedy struck; a female handler at the sanctuary died, trampled by one of the elephants. Mysteriously, Alice was found unconscious about a mile away, with troubling but fairly superficial injuries, and Jenna – who had been with her mother – was nowhere to be found. Alice was cared for overnight at a local hospital, but checked herself out the next day, never to be seen again by either Thomas or Jenna or anyone else who had known her in the past. The death of the handler was deemed an accident, and since no missing persons report was filed on Alice, the case was closed – by everyone except Jenna, who by then had been taken in by her maternal grandmother.
Armed with an unshakeable belief that her mother is still alive, and bolstered by a bravado that only the young possess, Jenna sets off in earnest to not only find her mother but to piece together the mystery behind the woman’s silence over the years. Yet even stalwart Jenna realizes she cannot do this alone, so she recruits the only resources she can think of: a former detective on the closed case who left the police department (under dubious circumstances) to become a freelance private investigator, and a debunked middle aged psychic whose specialty had been finding missing persons before her celebrity caused her to crash and burn.
In true Jodi Picoult fashion, we quickly come to realize that no one in Leaving Time is a simple, cookie cutter character; each has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own needs and their own secrets. Employing chapters written alternatively from the point of view of not only Jenna, but also Virgil (the detective) and Serenity (the former psychic), and interspersed liberally with past observations and memories of Alice Metcalf which fill in gaps between what is uncovered and give weight and drive to the action, we get a fast paced and gripping story that illustrates how differently folks can respond to losing the mainspring of their lives.
And throughout the entire text are the elephants. They are the ballast on which the rest of the action gains purchase, the constant and the catalyst. It is the love of elephants that brings Alice and Thomas together, and it is the desire to understand them and keep them safe that unites them. Over and over again we are allowed to glimpse the true magnificence of these creatures; how they create community, how they interact with each other, how they think and how they grieve – and what they remember. (That old adage about how an elephant never forgets? It’s true. And it’s apt that the creatures which remember virtually everything are the touchstones in a story about a girl who refuses to forget the mother she never really knew.)
It’s obvious that, along with writing another absorbing story, Ms. Picoult is using Leaving Time as a platform for educating us about elephants, something she openly acknowledges in her Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book. The plight of the elephant – both in the wild and in captivity – is very near and dear to her heart. Occasionally this gets in the way of the story, as we are forced to pause in the forward motion of the narrative to read yet another piquant-turned-plodding observation of a younger Alice as she studies the elephants in her care. It is fascinating stuff, yes, but shifts the story into low gear at times when it’s been building steam. Yet there is no denying that our greater understanding of elephants enhances the story, while giving us greater insight into the urgent need to protect these magnificent animals. It’s a trade off worth taking.
And the uneven pacing is left in the dust at the end of the book. Whereas Ms. Picoult is known for carefully building complex puzzles in her narrative, in somewhat atypical style the last 30 pages or so of Leaving Time take off at a breakneck speed with an amazing resolution that will leave you breathless. ‘Nuff said – you’ll want to experience it for yourself.
Just what you would expect from one of our greatest storytellers. The technique may be unexpected, but the strength of the tale is still there, still satisfying. And don’t forget – it’s got elephants, too!