There are a few traits which I’ve come to expect from Jodi Picoult’s novels, and her new novel, Leaving Time, certainly fits the bill. Her signature complex, believable characters, well-researched topical issues and shocking plot twists are all there. But, whilst Leaving Time does carry the author’s signature style, she takes it in a new direction with this book.
13-year-old Jenna Metcalfe is on a desperate hunt for her mother who disappeared from the elephant sanctuary where they lived ten years before. Her father is incarcerated in a mental institution and her grandmother seems keen to just forget the whole matter, so Jenna enlists help from some unlikely sources – ex-cop turned private investor and semi-alcoholic Virgil Holt and struggling psychic, Serenity Jones.
Jenna’s mother, Alice, was a research scientist specialising in elephant grief. She is introduced, first through her journals which Jenna scours for clues, and later through chapters from her perspective. The significance of her studies of matriarchal elephants and their relationships with their young calves is not lost on Jenna, who struggles to understand why her own mother would desert her.
The chapters flit through multiple narratives and timelines; Jenna, Virgil and Serenity all give their varying views on the mystery, whilst Alice narrates her life leading up until the point she disappeared, her story slowly unfurling up to the shocking climax. Her chapters are often filled with scholarly research and touching anecdotes about the elephants which are clearly incredibly well-researched by Picoult and are something I enjoyed – I’m a sucker for elephants since reading Water For Elephants – but I know some reviews found these sections a little long-winded and unnecessary.
Each character brings their own unique elements to the narrative – Virgil feels like a typical downbeat detective you’d find in a crime noir novel and I would love to read more of him, whilst Serenity’s unconventional view on the world made me look at things in a different light. Jenna is someone I couldn’t help but empathise with, although I did find her a little too wise at points. The novel is supported by two teaser novellas which were available before the book’s release; Larger Than Life which introduces Alice and Where There’s Smoke which introduces Serenity. I only read one – Where There’s Smoke, but I would recommend reading both if you have the time as the one I did read helped me understand the character’s past, and therefore her actions in the novel a little more.
The story drags a little at times near the beginning but, once I was past around halfway I was – as the front cover claimed I would be – gripped. The present-day investigation picks up as the unlikely trio journey across states to find answers and, as Alice narrates her time living at the elephant sanctuary, themes of mental illness and adultery are weaved in beautifully against the unusual backdrop.
As is typical with Picoult’s novels, this story ends with a startling twist – but this one was a little out there, even for her. Without giving too much away, it’s a twist which I’ve read in novels before, and some work better than others. This one left me with mixed feelings, but it definitely got me still thinking about the story long after I’d finished the last page.