I am a sucker for a good literary fiction book with sprinkles of magic or supernatural elements in it. It’s why I write books like A Symphony of Cicadas or Forever Thirteen that mix life and afterlife in the story, and why I love authors like Sarah Addison Allen with her magical realism romances and Alice Sebold who beautifully tells a story from the young ghost’s point of view.
And it’s why I have a new love for Jodi Picoult. I’ve always thought of this author as someone who wrote literary fiction. She’s written acclaimed novels that include My Sister’s Keeper, which became a movie, and whose books have inspired several Lifetime movies. So it was a surprise when I discovered Leaving Time, a book that appears to tell a straightforward story, but also includes some surprise supernatural elements and twists. This book kept me guessing all the way to the end.
The story starts with Jenna, a young teenage girl who has been searching for the reason her mother disappeared when she was a toddler after a freak accident on their family’s elephant sanctuary. Since she was old enough, Jenna has been looking for clues to her mother’s whereabouts, knowing there’s another reason why Alice left and never came back for her. She can’t get answers from her father, as he’s lost his mind and lives in an institution. And her grandmother, who Jenna lives with, is no help, insisting she forget her search and just move on with her life. But Jenna can’t move on, so she enlists the help of a failed private detective who had once been on the case, along with a psychic who may or may not have lost her powers. The trio becomes this unlikely team of sleuths, searching for answers to a case that’s been closed for a decade.
The mystery behind the disappearance of Jenna’s mom, along with otherworldly elements (I mean, there is a psychic involved), is a page turner, for sure, but it’s the story in between that kept me captivated. Picoult wove in stories about the sanctuary elephants through various flashbacks, beautifully incorporating their stories as parallel timelines to the present-day search for Alice. Through the isolation of one mourning elephant, I gained deeper insight to the turmoil inside Alice. The tragedy of death and betrayal was echoed through the elephant’s experience of death. Picoult shared details of the human story that was unfolding, but revealed the understory as a study on elephants, and it was just beautiful how it was done.
As for that twist? I never saw it coming. And it was perfect.
I read this book weeks ago, and I’m still thinking of it. It’s definitely one I’ll turn to again and again to learn how to weave a story and not just tell it.