Jodi Picoult is one of the most beloved authors in contemporary literature. One thing her fans can always count on in her stories is an intoxicating mix of fact-based evidence and emotional turmoil that results in a much page-turning and usually leads to a twist that readers never see coming. The second thing readers know they’ll get with a Picoult novel is an in-depth lesson on a specific topic. In the past these topics have varied from wolves to terminal illnesses to Dante’s nine circles of hell. In Leaving Time, it’s elephants.
Most of the novel is set in modern-day New Hampshire and focuses on the story of Jenna Metcalf. Jenna is a precocious 13-year-old who decides to search for her mother, who has been missing for the last ten years. Alice Metcalf, a biologist who studies grief in elephants, disappeared after a tragic accident at the elephant sanctuary—run by Alice and her husband—which left an employee dead and landed Jenna’s father in a mental institution.
Jenna enlists two unusual characters to help in her search. The first is Serenity Jones, a psychic who gives cheap readings out of her living room; the second is Virgil Stanhope, the now-retired cop who investigated the case at the elephant sanctuary ten years ago. The reader gets a glimpse into the minds and motivations of all three characters, as the narrator of the search for Alice Metcalf switches between chapters.
Jenna’s only way into her mother’s life is a set of journals Alice wrote during her time in Africa studying elephant grief. A young Alice is the fourth narrator of the book and her chapters give the audience an intimate look into what was happening at the time she wrote the journals. These chapters are where Picoult’s magic ability to turn the educational into the emotional transforms the story—throughout the novel, Alice’s research is symbolic of what is happening in Jenna’s life. The reader learns about the special bond a mother elephant has with its calf and the grief she feels when mother and calf are separated. It is an irony that Jenna points out, wondering how her mother could have abandoned her after researching these intimate feelings between parent and child.
Leaving Time strays from Picoult’s other recent books in two notable ways. The first is that there is no court case, a staple of previous books that I always enjoyed, and missed in this one. The second is the deterrence from fact-based evidence. Serenity Jones’ psychic ability is a key element in the story, and the talk of spirit guides and people existing in multiple realms gives the rest of the investigation a less credible feel. That being said, if you’ve avoided Picoult in the past because of the tough legal issues she often writes about, this book should be right up your alley.