Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

One of the key elements in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the Booker short-listed novel by Karen Joy Fowler, is the depiction of chimpanzees in captivity and their affect upon their human caregivers. Similarly, in Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult analyzes the nature of mothering and grieving in elephants, substantiating the existence of emotions and cognitive thought. And she creates the complicated character of Alice Metcalf, elephant researcher and mother, who is completing her PhD by studying the grieving process in these majestic creatures.

The book is written in the first person and our narrator is a precocious 13-year-old named Jenna Metcalf. Jenna is searching for her mother--the scientist Alice Metcalf--who disappeared ten years ago when Jenna was a toddler. At that time, Jenna lived with her mother, father, and 3 related staff members in a New Hampshire elephant sanctuary. Then, a horrific accident occurred. The elephant, Maura, trampled a caretaker and knocked Alice unconscious. After she regained consciousness in the hospital, Alice disappeared and was never found. The caretaker's death was marked accidental. But was it? Where was Thomas when the incident occurred? He is now psychotic and living in an institution. Why has Alice not returned for her child? Is she guilty of murder? Is she still alive?

Jenna is haunted by these questions. The novel continues in the first person as various characters give an accounting of the incident and those events preceding and following it. Alice's journals, which Jenna has practically memorized, and a blue scarf are the only remnants she has of her mother.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Jenna cannot believe her mother abandoned her. She does online searches and looks for her name in scientific articles. She tracks down the detective who worked on the case ten years ago - a detective who was so disturbed by the closing of the case that he resigned from the police force. He now has his own agency. Jenna also finds an inexpensive psychic to help in the search.

Both Virgil, the alcoholic detective, and Serenity, the has-been psychic, are empathic characters. They provide humor to what would otherwise be a tragic novel. Cynical and world-weary, they reluctantly team up with the wise-cracking Jenna. The adventure that ensues will provide a page-turning experience filled with suspense and awe.

Aside from rich, believable characters, Picoult's extensive research on elephants will enthrall any person interested in wildlife. Her juxtaposition of elephant and human grief is a major theme in the book. Indeed, by the novel's end, the reader will wonder whose evolution is greater - that of the elephant or that of man.

Leaving Time is both a mystery and a contemporary morality tale. It combines realistic fiction with the occult. Exploring the many facets of love and loss, the book examines the price we pay for being human.

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