I have read nine of prolific author Jodi Picoult’s 22 novels, but I have missed her half-dozen or so most recent ones. Just before Christmas, I read her latest, Leaving Time (a gift from last Christmas!), and remembered why I have always loved her books. Like the others, this novel was incredibly compelling, with real-feeling characters, an intense storyline about an important topic, and Picoult’s signature surprise that you will never see coming (I normally don’t even mention plot twists in reviews, for fear of giving away spoilers, but even knowing this author is famous for them, I was still surprised).
Thirteen year-old Jenna Metcalf can’t remember much of her mother, since she disappeared when Jenna was only three years old, but she has never stopped thinking about her. Jenna lives a quiet life with her grandmother and reads her mother’s old journals compulsively, looking for clues to explain why she disappeared and where she went a decade ago. One thing Jenna is certain of: her mother wouldn’t have left her unless there was a very good reason. Now that she is thirteen, Jenna decides to launch a serious investigation to finally find her mother and bring her back home.
Ten years ago, Jenna’s mother, Alice, and her father, Thomas, were elephant researchers, working at an elephant sanctuary that Thomas created in New Hampshire. Alice’s specialty was studying grief among elephants. Jenna has limited – but vivid – memories of her brief childhood at the elephant sanctuary, living among her parents, the few other dedicated employees, and the elephants themselves. Ten years ago, there was a violent incident at the sanctuary, resulting in one death and Alice’s disappearance from the hospital later that night.
In addition to searching the internet and poring over Alice’s journals, Jenna decides to enlist some adult help. She seeks out Virgil Stanhope, one of the police officers who originally (and poorly) investigated events that night. Despite her doubts, Jenna also turns to Serenity Jones, a psychic who was once famous for finding missing persons. Jenna figures that if her mother is still alive, someone like Serenity will know. The unlikely (and grudging) team of three begins to go back over the decade-old case, re-investigating all of the strange happenings of that fateful night and following the clues they find.
This unique novel works on so many levels, as chapters alternate between Jenna’s current perspective and Alice’s old journals. It is a captivating mystery, with an admittedly odd investigative team who are searching for answers in a very cold case. Through Alice’s chapters, the reader also learns a lot about elephants – how they live in the wild, how they are often abused in captivity, how they live at the sanctuary, and the amazing ways that they grieve. I didn’t think I was necessarily interested in elephants, but the information is woven into the narrative with the characters’ stories and is absolutely fascinating. Finally, this is the story of the love and the unbreakable bond between a mother and a daughter.
As with most Picoult novels that I’ve read, I was completely absorbed in this unusual story right from the first pages and couldn’t wait to get back to my book whenever daily life forced me to set it down. Jenna, Alice, and all the rest of the characters felt entirely real to me, and I cared about what happened to them and worried about what Jenna would discover. I also came to care about the elephants, who are just as distinct and real-feeling as the human characters in this novel. The mystery at the heart of the novel kept me guessing right until the last pages, with one surprise after another gradually revealed, and despite all of my predictions about the conclusion, Jodi Picoult surprised me once again. I won’t wait so long this time to read another of her unique and compelling novels.
398 pages, Ballantine Books
NOTE: Thought the New England Elephant Sanctuary described in the novel is fictional, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee mentioned is real. You can learn more about elephants, make donations to help them, and view live webcams of the elephants in the sanctuary at their website.
And for a real-life glimpse into the research on elephants and grief that Alice did in the novel, check out this amazing story from the real-life Elephant Sanctuary: