The enigmatic elephant — a favorite of writers from Sara Gruen to Rudyard Kipling — has lumbered its way into bestselling author Jodi Picoult’s new novel, an entertaining tale about parental love, friendship, loss — and, well, elephants.
“Leaving Time” is set partially at a New England elephant sanctuary and in the savannas of Africa, where herds of wild elephants roam. When the novel opens, 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf is searching for her mother, Alice, an elephant researcher, who disappeared 10 years earlier in the wake of a tragic accident at the sanctuary. In hopes of finding clues to her whereabouts, Jenna mines detailed journals her mother kept about her work. It’s a lonesome quest: Her father has been in a psychiatric hospital since the incident and her grandmother, who has been taking care of Jenna, doesn’t “want to go there,” Jenna informs us. So Jenna solicits the help of Serenity Jones, a disgraced medium, and Virgil Stanhope, a hard-drinking private detective.
Jenna is particularly tormented by her inability to remember details of the night her mother disappeared. There’s an irony, of course, that the wise teen Jenna is quick to point out: “You know the old adage that elephants never forget?” That truism is based in fact, Jenna explains, and her mother’s research proved it. Another area of her mother’s research — elephant grief — also resonates clearly in a personal way. When an elephant calf dies, its mother often refuses to leave her offspring’s body for days. Jenna knows that passage from her mom’s journal by heart. “Sometimes,” she says, “when I am bored in class, I even write it in my own notebook, trying to replicate the loops of her handwriting.”
Such poignant moments are often flecked with Jenna’s authentic-sounding teen voice. “Let’s talk for just a second about the fact that my grandmother is going to ground me until I’m, oh, sixty,” she tells us about her decision to skip town in pursuit of her mom. “I left her a note, but I’ve purposely turned off my phone because I don’t really want to hear her reaction when she finds it.”
Unfortunately, though, Jenna’s witty voice is interspersed with passages narrated by less engaging characters. Alice in particular comes across as clinical, and the entries from her journal, though informative, occasionally read like a zoology textbook, while the rest of novel is a melting pot of genres including mystery, romance and the supernatural.
Picoult mostly manages to blend all of these diverse elements into a cohesive whole, wrapping up her tale with an ending so surprising that she has asked reviewers not to reveal spoilers on social media. Suffice it to say that readers of “Leaving Time” are unlikely to forget these formidable animals that are so different from us in appearance but so similar when it comes to saying goodbye to those they love.
Gillespie is a novelist and teaches writing at Georgia Regents University.
By Jodi Picoult
Ballantine. 405 pp. $28