Readers can usually count on blockbuster novelist Jodi Picoult for two things. First is a smart, accessible yarn with a suspenseful puzzle at its core that will keep readers enthusiastically turning the page. Second is impressive insight into any number of topical issues. From donor children and terminal illness to teen suicide and social issues like class and race, Picoult does her homework, and her main themes are thoroughly researched and engrossingly presented. With this new novel, “Leaving Time,” her fans will not be disappointed.
At the heart of the book is the extraordinary behavior of elephants. Research scientist Alice Metcalf has devoted her professional life to investigating how elephants experience grief. But after a tragedy occurs at the New Hampshire elephant sanctuary run by the scientist and her husband, Thomas, Alice disappears, and that’s the novel’s central mystery.
The real protagonist of “Leaving Time” is Alice and Thomas’s 13-year-old daughter, Jenna, who at the novel’s beginning sets out to uncover what happened to her mother. Jenna cannot accept that someone who spent her career researching the behavior of grief, especially the special bond between mother and offspring, could possibly abandon her own three-year-old child with no logical explanation. Ten years later, Jenna is on a mission. Her father, currently residing in a psychiatric facility, mired by a tenuous grip on reality, is no help. “All I have left of my mother is her research,’’ Jenna says. “I pore over her journals, because I know one day the words will rearrange themselves on a page and point me toward her.”
Chapters of “Leaving Time” bounce back and forth in time and are recounted through alternating voices — Jenna, Alice, and two characters who find in Jenna’s quest a chance to redeem themselves. The flamboyant, pink-haired Serenity was once a TV celebrity psychic who found herself making very public blunders after losing her mojo. When she meets Jenna, Serenity is making a modest living telling people what they want to hear. “The only supernatural power at work here is the ability of the average person to find meaning in random details. We are a race that sees the Virgin Mary in the cut stump of a tree, that can find God in the twist of a rainbow, that hears Paulisdead when a Beatles’ song is played backwards. The same intricate human mind that makes sense of the nonsensical is the human mind that can believe a fake psychic.” With Serenity, Picoult sets up questions of afterlife.
Then there’s Virgil, the ex-cop who initially investigated, but never solved, Alice’s disappearance and lost himself in a bottle. Jenna and her cohorts make an off-beat, slightly contrived but engaging threesome as they dig into the complexities of Alice’s past.
Alice’s slowly unfurling back story includes stirring, often heartbreaking facts and anecdotes about elephants (all based on real elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.). Animal lovers will be hard-pressed not to be moved and amazed by revelations of the creatures’ vast cognitive and emotional intelligence.
Picoult’s stories reinforce the significance of the bond between mother and child. Throughout, she draws parallels between elephant and human behavior, bolstering the claim that in addition to remarkable memory, these giant creatures have a stunning capacity for communal connection and support, as well as emotion, from anger and grief to love, loyalty, and forgiveness.
“Leaving Time” is a little uneven. Jenna seems too wise and street savvy to be totally believable. And one pivotal scene midway and the novel’s shocker of an ending require considerable suspension of disbelief. But that doesn’t stop it from both piercing and uplifting the hearts of those willing go along for the ride.Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.