Leaving Time is a novel about loss, grief and forgiveness. It is told through the eyes of several characters: There is Jenna, a thirteen-year old girl, who has spent the past 10 years wondering why her mother left her when she was three-years old. There is Alice Metcalf, Jenna’s mother who has spent her entire professional life studying elephants, specifically how elephants experience grief. There is Serenity Jones, a washed up psychic. There is Virgil Stanhope, a former cop who investigated the tragedy at the elephant sanctuary 10 years earlier. Ostensibly he committed suicide on the day of his promotion, only to reappear as Victor, a private investigator. And finally, there are the elephants residing in an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire.
Alice was studying elephants in Africa when she met Thomas Metcalf, who ran an elephant sanctuary in the States. They had a brief night of passion, before he returned to New Hampshire. They stayed in touch, but when Alice discovered she was pregnant, she visited Thomas in New Hampshire. They wed before they really know each other and she learns of his mental illness. She stays with Thomas working at the elephant sanctuary while trying to continue her research.
The novel unwinds between the present and the past, and slowly the reader begins to piece together the tragedy that occurred at the elephant sanctuary 10 years earlier, leaving Jenna motherless with the mysterious disappearance of her mother. Virgil was one of the cops who investigated the original events, but realized at the time the case was handled badly. He hopes to redeem himself by helping Jenna search for her mother.
Through Alice’s voice, we learn about elephant behavior. Elephants grieve for lost members of the herd, and when a mother loses a calf, it will stay with the body for days as it grieves. Picoult did her research, and as noted in the Afterwards, the bits about the elephants are based on real elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an actual sanctuary for elephants in captivity.
The ending, while fitting for the novel, requires a bit of magical thinking. It does explain, however, some of the seemingly inconsistence in Jenna’s life. I enjoyed this novel and read it in two days.