Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
"The gripping story of a daughter searching for her missing mother - one of Jodi Picoult's most powerful and affecting novels yet.
Alice Metcalf was a devoted mother, loving wife and accomplished scientist who studied grief among elephants. Yet it's been a decade since she disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind her small daughter, husband, and the animals to which she devoted her life. All signs point to abandonment - or worse.
Still Jenna - now thirteen years old and truly orphaned by a father maddened by grief - steadfastly refuses to believe in her mother's desertion. So she decides to approach the two people who might still be able to help her find Alice: a disgraced psychic named Serenity Jones, and Virgil Stanhope, the cynical detective who first investigated her mother's disappearance and the strange, possibly linked death of one of her mother's coworkers.
Together these three lonely souls will discover truths destined to forever change their lives. Deeply moving and suspenseful, Jodi Picoult's 21st novel is a radiant exploration of the enduring love between mothers and daughters."
“It does not matter who you are or what kind of personal relationship you’ve forged with an elephant: Come between her and her calf, and she will kill you."
Having read Larger than Life, one of the prequels to this novel (the other being Where There’s Smoke), I thought that I was prepared for what Jodi Picoult was going to present me with in this, her twenty-second novel, but boy was I wrong! In fact, she totally blew me out of the water with this one.
Told in two parts from the POVs of Jenna, Alice, Virgil and Serenity, the first part builds up to a confrontation with Jenna’s father, Thomas, whilst the second part begins to unravel the mystery surrounding Alice’s disappearance.
To give you a bit of a background on Alice, she was in Africa, researching grief in elephants when her and Thomas Metcalf met. A woman who was ridiculed by her peers for what she had chosen to study, when she met Thomas, she knew she'd found her soulmate as he was the first person who understood what she was trying to determine in her relentless research. When he left, she felt like she’d lost something even though they kept in contact. Finding herself pregnant she decided to take him up on his invitation to visit him in America and the rest, they say, is history.
Sadly, for Jenna, she was just three years old when Alice disappeared without a trace. Now thirteen and living with her grandmother who never speaks about her daughter’s disappearance, all Jenna has are fractured memories through the eyes of her three year old self and her mother’s research journals. Because of all that remains unspoken, she hurts, like any child would, and desperately wants to get all the answers behind her mother’s abandonment. An intelligent young girl, she’s save up some money and begins to do her own amateur detective work, gathers clues along with other bits and pieces and, under the pretext of doing babysitting jobs, sets out to enlist the help of Serenity Jones and Virgil Stanhope, in the hopes that, together, they will be able to find Alice.
Once famous for the work that she did helping people find their lost loved ones, Serenity is now a down-on-her-luck, has-been psychic. Having won three Emmy Awards and clicked heels with a variety of celebrities, that all became a mere memory when one serious mistake led her to lose everything from her credibility to her self-confidence.
Virgil, an ex-detective turned private eye, who now prefers to investigate the contents of a bottle, became disillusioned with his job whilst investigating a case at the elephant sanctuary in which one person was found dead and the other unconscious. While his gut instinct had told him to dig deeper, his partner, Donny, had warned him off investigating further, preferring to bury an inconsistency in the evidence they had procured.
Together, Jenna, Serenity and Virgil form a tenacious trio as their search leads them from New England to Tennessee and back again, in what can only be described as a soul-searching expedition of remembrances and self-discovery.
Along with just a handful of other overseas authors, Jodi Picoult is one of my favourites and has been ever since I discovered her in the early 1990s. In this, her twenty-third novel, there is no denying that her writing continues to strengthen and the amount of research she puts into it is extensive, specifically in regard to the elephants, from their mothering and behavioural instincts, to the memories they retain and the grief they overcome, both in the wild and in captivity.
With her rich prose and descriptions, Jodi draws parallels between elephant herds and human families whilst skilfully demonstrating the emotional impacts created by an unseen umbilicus being torn away and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she switched between the perspectives of Jenna, Virgil and Serenity, along with Alice’s memories of her research and life, with the elephants providing a strong emotional centre.
It’s true that the bond between a mother and her child is unbreakable and I can attest to that wholeheartedly. Being an immigrant who left hers behind six years ago, to take up residence on the other side of the world, was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But the difference between me, Jenna and Alice, was that I was an adult and mine was planned and, although I suffered severe personal trauma and grief for the first two years, nothing can be worse than your mother being wrenched from you and not having any answers to the questions that linger but remain unspoken.
The other reason this story resonated with me, goes even deeper - the setting. It's true that Africa beats to the rhythm of its own drum and, coming from South Africa myself, Jodi made me call to mind my own experiences in the African wild and believe me when I say there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. She sums it up perfectly in the following passage:
“You have to understand – there is a romance to Africa. You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the hand of God. You watch the slow lope of a lioness and forget to breath. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heat, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.”
The story is told with skillfulness and elegance whilst the pacing kept me intrigued and the suspense almost killed me as I was captivated by Jenna’s unrelenting search for her mother. What was she going to uncover? Would she find Alice? Were all her questions finally going to be answered?
By no means maudlin, Jodi’s poignant narration and distinct voice will mesmerise readers as she tells a story that will touch your heart, have you reflecting on the memories we keep and the pain that we bury all the while leading you to a cracker of an ending that will undoubtedly have you questioning everything you've ever believed in.
I wish to thank Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room for providing me with an uncorrected proof of this novel.
About the Author
Jodi Picoult, 47, is the bestselling author of of twenty-two novels: Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992), Harvesting the Heart (1994), Picture Perfect (1995), Mercy (1996), The Pact (1998), Keeping Faith (1999), Plain Truth (2000), Salem Falls (2001), Perfect Match (2002), Second Glance (2003), My Sister's Keeper (2004), Vanishing Acts (2005), The Tenth Circle (2006), Nineteen Minutes (2007), Change of Heart (2008), Handle With Care (2009), House Rules (2010), Sing You Home (2011), Lone Wolf (2012), the YA novel Between the Lines (2012) co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer, The Storyteller (2013). Her last seven novels, including The Storyteller, have debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Picoult studied creative writing with Mary Morris at Princeton, and had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine while still a student. Realism - and a profound desire to be able to pay the rent - led Picoult to a series of different jobs following her graduation: as a technical writer for a Wall Street brokerage firm, as a copywriter at an ad agency, as an editor at a textbook publisher, and as an 8th grade English teacher - before entering Harvard to pursue a master's in education. She married Tim Van Leer, whom she had known at Princeton, and it was while she was pregnant with her first child that she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale.
In 2003 she was awarded the New England Bookseller Award for Fiction. She has also been the recipient of an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, sponsored by the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust and Booklist, one of ten books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults; the Book Browse Diamond Award for novel of the year; a lifetime achievement award for mainstream fiction from the Romance Writers of America; Cosmopolitan magazine's 'Fearless Fiction' Award 2007; Waterstone's Author of the Year in the UK, a Vermont Green Mountain Book Award, a NH Granite State Book Award, a Virginia Reader's Choice Award, the Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award, and a Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award. She's the 2013-14 recipient of the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Literary Merit. She wrote five issues of the Wonder Woman comic book series for DC Comics. Her books are translated into thirty four languages in thirty five countries. Four of those – The Pact, Plain Truth, The Tenth Circle, and Salem Falls - have been made into television movies. My Sister's Keeper was a big-screen released from New Line Cinema, with Nick Cassavetes directing and Cameron Diaz starring, which is now available on DVD. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Dartmouth College in 2010 and another from the University of New Haven in 2012.
Jodi is part of the Writer's Council for the National Writing Project, which recognises the universality of writing as a communicative tool and helps teachers enhance student writing. She is a spokesperson for Positive Tracks/Children's Hospital at Dartmouth, which supports youth-led charity fundraising through athletics; and is on the advisory committee of the New Hampshire Coalition Against the Death Penalty. She is also the founder and executive producer of the Trumbull Hall Troupe, a New Hampshire-based teen theater group that performs original musicals to raise money for local charities; to date their contributions have exceeded $80K.
She and her husband Tim and their three children live in Hanover, New Hampshire with two Springer spaniels, two rescue puppies, two donkeys, two geese, eight chickens, and the occasional Holstein.