“I think grief is like a really ugly couch. It never goes away. You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room – but eventually, you learn to live with it.“
I live in New Hampshire and Leaving Time is the first book I’ve read by Jodi Picoult, a prolific author from our state. Interestingly, my brother who lives in India has read each and every book written by her. I read the book with my book club and my brother warned me that it is not the book you choose to introduce yourself to her work. And of course, he turned out to be right!
The ending which took me by complete surprise ruined the story for me. Picoult is famous for her unpredictable twist endings. This book too had a twist ending but it seemed far fetched to me. It called for a total suspension of disbelief. I actually found the story gripping; I couldn’t put it down. And that’s why I felt cheated after being hooked for so long. I almost threw the book across the room in exasperation.
Thirteen year old Jenna is on a quest to find her mother who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when she was only three. Her parents Alice and Thomas Metcalf were research scientists who ran an elephant sanctuary in gasp …NH of all places! (According to the book, elephants can survive cold temperatures, although keeping elephants in the cold is a subject of heated debate in current times.) Alice was last seen at the elephant sanctuary on the day her co-worker Nevvie was found dead. No one knows if Nevvie was trampled by an elephant or if she was murdered. Alice is found injured and unconscious not too far away from Nevvie’s body and taken to the hospital but she runs away from there on regaining consciousness. She does not contact Jenna and a missing person report has never been filed for her.
As Jenna grows up, she is curious to find out what happened to her mother and to reunite with her. She is on the internet trying to get any information she can and studies her mother’s research journals hoping to find some clue there. She does not believe her mother has abandoned her. Her grandmother is quiet about the whole affair and her father has been confined to a psychiatric hospital since the incident took place. She is on her own and ends up enlisting help from two dubious characters; Serenity who was once a celebrity psychic with the ability to talk to spirits but whose skills are rusty now as her two spirit guides seem to have have forsaken her, and Virgil Stanhope, an ex-cop turned private investigator who was on her mother’s case but missed some of the clues and who is now a miserable alcoholic on account of the botched investigation.
The book is narrated in the first person from the four alternating perspectives of Jenna, Serenity,Virgil and Alice and switches back and forth between the past and the present. The transitions were seamless but it could be because I felt that the voice of the four characters was practically the same. Alice details events that led up to the fatal day. She was a scientist who was doing field work at a reserve in Botswana to study grief among elephants and met Thomas Metcalf on his brief visit there. A romantic tryst and an unexpected pregnancy forces her to leave Africa and to marry Thomas and move to an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire where he works. It does not take her long to discover that her husband is severely mentally ill. Meanwhile she develops a closeness with a co-worker Gideon who is married to Grace, daughter of Nevvie. Oh the tangled web we weave!
Alice was a research scientist who studied the behavior of elephants. As someone who adores elephants, I loved reading about them. I was moved by their capacity to love and grieve. The term given to the way members of elephant herds take care of each other’s offspring is ‘allomothering’. Elephants are intelligent, sensitive and compassionate creatures who never forget. Some of the research information on the pachyderms could seem too factual but Picoult inserts fact with fiction to raise awareness about the plight of elephants worldwide in captivity who experience great psychological trauma when separated from their babies. She also wants to illustrate the parallel between elephant behavior towards their calves and Alice’s relationship with Jenna. I wasn’t too moved by this analogy as in spite of being a caring mother, Alice was also careless and irresponsible in some ways.
At first I was confused by the title of the book which didn’t seem relevant to the plot. It refers to how Jenna felt when her mother Alice would put her down for a nap. It was literally ‘leaving time’ as her mother was temporarily leaving her. The duration of the nap is also when Jenna left time from existence. So if we have left time when asleep, couldn’t the same be said for when we are dead? To avoid spoilers, I will not elaborate further on this theme but the book does raise interesting questions about the concept of time.
Alice remarks that ninety-eight percent of science is quantifiable but there still remains that two percent of behavior or phenomena that cannot be explained by science. The issue I had with the book is that Picoult allows the two percent to dominate the narrative making the ending seem ridiculous. Is Alice dead or alive? Was she responsible for Nevvie’s death? Will mother and daughter reunite? All the answers come together in an absurd ending that I didn’t see coming.
How did I miss the elephant in the room?
Have you read Jodi Picoult? Which book of hers would you recommend I read next?
5 thoughts on “Leaving Time- The Pain and Pangs of People and Pachyderms”
I too read this book a few years ago and felt the same way as you. I am a lover of elephants, and found most of the story to be so believable that I was really shocked by the ending. I definitely felt cheated, as you have put it!
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Yes, it was quite ludicrous.
I haven’t read any of her books and went to an evening event with her speaking a few years ago which put me off completely, she seemed to business like about her writing! I do wonder if I’m missing something though?
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Oh that’s too bad! That would put me off too.
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I read a couple of her books a few years ago and felt dissatisfied with them, and so I quit picking up anything with her name on it. I felt like she was trying to pander to popular taste, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.