Short Take: Give me a second, there’s something in my eye….
I’ve been a fan of Jodi Picoult for quite a while. She’s an unusual choice for me, because I generally favor some guts and gore, or at least, a really intense mystery with a bunch of life or death situations. But there’s just something about Jodi. Maybe, it’s the fact that no matter what the controversial subject is, she’s not afraid to Go There. And when she does, she immerses me in whatever the situation is, and drags my emotions through every minute of it. School shooting? Yup. Teen suicide? Uh huh. Having to make an excruciating choice between daughters? Gotcha covered.
So when I saw that she had a new book out, and that it was partially about elephants (did I mention that elephants are my favorite animal? They. So. Are.), I was ready to love it.
Leaving Time is the story of Jenna, whose mother disappeared under very strange circumstances when Jenna was only three. Alice was doing groundbreaking research on grief in elephant herds, and living on an elephant sanctuary with her husband Thomas, and three other employees – Gideon, his wife Grace, and his mother in law, Nevvie. One terrible night, Nevvie is killed, apparently trampled by an elephant, and Alice is badly injured. She is rushed to the hospital, where she later wakes up, walks out, and is never seen again. Jenna’s father, Thomas, suffered a psychotic break from the events, and has been institutionalized for the past 10 years, unable to recall or explain what happened.
Jenna, now thirteen years old, has been trying everything she can think of to locate Alice, not knowing if she is even still alive. She finally saves up enough babysitting money to enlist the services of a psychic (Serenity), and a washed-up, alcoholic, former policeman turned private investigator (Virgil).
From there, Leaving Time turns into a fairly standard Picoult novel. There are secrets that are revealed, and alternating chapters in different voices (Alice, Jenna, Serenity and Virgil are our narrators). You can tell that the author did her research – when Alice is speaking about the elephants she is studying, there’s an insane amount of detail on the animals and their habits. Some of it made me curious enough to google, and based on what I found, it seems like everything is true. In that way, Leaving Time is similar to Lone Wolf.
As much as I love elephants, and as fascinating as some of their chapters were, I wish there had been a little less of it. At times, it started to feel repetitive. There were too many descriptions of the death of an elephant and the reactions of the herd. All the references to how elephants mother their young started to feel too heavy-handed. Jodi Picoult is usually a lot subtler with her metaphors.
Elephants aside, this book was incredible. The four main characters all have their own struggles, and distinct voices. Jenna is the heartbroken child who just wants her mother, Alice is the cool, logical scientist (until she isn’t), Serenity’s self-doubt is crippling, and Virgil is angry at the police force, his landlord, and most of all, himself.
I could write pages about the ending. I’m really torn. On one hand, I did NOT see it coming, and the emotional impact was huge. I had to walk away for a little bit to process it. On the other hand, as much as it pains me to say this: it’s been done. Maybe not exactly the same, but close enough to feel painfully derivative. It was a little disappointing… but at the same time, in the context of previous events, it was not at all what I was expecting. And did I mention the emotional scars I now have?
So the question becomes, if a book has an ending that is almost a carbon copy of something you’ve seen before, is it automatically bad? What if it’s done so skillfully that in a lot of ways, it’s better than the original, one of the few books that can actually bring you to tears? Does that make the “copying” better or worse? I don’t know the answer. I do know that there’s a lot of great, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching stuff in here, and I would still highly recommend it.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS. And a box of tissues. Trust me on that one.