08 November 2014

Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

I'm feeling a little whiny today -- in the "writing books reviews is hard" kind of way -- but it's a good coping/procrastination mechanism for me.  It's been over three weeks since I last posted a book review, and the longer I go in between those posts, the more difficult it is for me to sit myself down and talk about a book.  I often wonder why that is, since I'm obviously comfortable working with books and talking to customers every single day about them as a means of supporting myself.  Part of it results from finding so many other things to do with my time on my precious days off, but let's be perfectly clear: most of it is the result of laziness and an utter lack of self-discipline.

So, I'm going to ease back into book reviewing with a book that I liked, but whose content has become a little vague because I read it five months ago on the train ride home from BEA in May. I'll preface it by saying that while I've read a handful of Jodi Picoult's novels over the years, I've never self-identified as a particular fan of hers.  She is, I think, a good storyteller but overall is a bit too commercial to dovetail more than occasionally with my own reading preferences. The first book of hers that I've ever read was My Sister's Keeper, and until now, that one was probably my favorite, despite my serious dislike of the book's ending.

With the publication of Leaving Time, Picoult has changed publishers, and therefore editors, and I think that, combined with the fact that her new book revolves largely around elephants, has created a new reading experience for me.  Picoult never has been, and perhaps never will be, a writer of literary fiction, but she has an easy style that moves the story along without getting in the way of itself.

A psychic, a private investigator, and a teenage girl walk into a mental hospital...

...it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but this scenario actually plays a crucial role in Leaving Time. Jenna is said teenager who has retained the services of a psychic named Serenity Jones and a private investigator named Virgil Stanhope, both of whom are down & out, to help find her mother, Alice.  Alice disappeared one night after a traumatic accident in the elephant sanctuary where she worked, leaving her husband so mentally unbalanced that Jenna is left to be raised by her grandmother. This trio of unlikely comrades combs through Alice's journal and her papers on elephant research as a means of tracing her current whereabouts.

Along the way, the reader is treated to astonishing situations of elephant empathy, grief, and memory. Picoult's research for this book is amazing, and when I was invited to an author dinner with her a few months ago, she regaled our table with stories, including many that didn't make it into the book.  I have always loved elephants, and no doubt that is partly why this book resonated with me in a way that none of her previous books have.  But I'd also suggest that incorporating animal empathy into her novel gives it an emotional heft that is lacking in her previous books.
I mean, really. Look at that little tyke go.  
Picoult uses her trademark multiple narrative storytelling here, mostly to good effect, and there are the usual twists and turns along the way.  I anticipated many of the minor ones, and if I had been as enthralled with the human elements as much as I was to the elephant ones, I might have anticipated the major reveal at the end, but I did not.  I think it's pretty clear that if you already love Jodi Picoult, this book will renew your love for her, but if you've never read her, I think this book's depths may pleasantly surprise you. I admit that it took a goodly amount of suspending my disbelief to accept some of the plot at face value -- count me among the population who is skeptical about psychics, for example -- but in the end, my enthusiasm for All Things Pachyderm completely overruled my feelings for everything else.

It is my earnest hope that that this novel will do for captive elephants what the shocking documentary, Blackfish, has done for captive dolphins & whales around the world.  It is perhaps na├»ve of me to think so, but Picoult's readership is so large, and so international, that they could easily effect a social change in the way elephants are treated around the world. I hope that it becomes true. In the meantime, she educates her readers about the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the only place in the US (and maybe the world? I'm not sure) where circus and zoo elephants can be rehabilitated (or can retire to), and for now, at least, this book has moved me to make donations to help sustain them.  Fuck zoos and circuses, and don't even get me started on poachers and the Asian markets that keep said poachers employed.  For them, my sentiment is more like, poke out their eyes and skull fuck them.  Not that I have strong feelings about these things.

The cute factor here -- I just can't even.

9 comments:

  1. Writing reviews *is* hard. Or at least a lot harder than NOT writing reviews. I feel your pain.

    So Picoult, not really my jam (at least based on summaries and reviews and whatnot since I haven't actually read anything of hers and I KNOW I shouldn't judge but there I go) BUT elephants might actually get me to try her.

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    1. Oh. God SOOOO much harder than NOT writing reviews. Thank you for saying that!

      If you actively don't like Picoult, maybe the human stuff in this book may be too much. It was almost too much for me. But I would wade through much more of the human stuff for just half of the elephant stuff, so there's that...

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  2. I think I have to read this book. My eldest daughter loves JP and has read , and raved about, everything she has written. I have read some of her work (pretty good) but I wouldn't describe myself as a fan. Maybe the new publisher and editor are what she needed as I always felt her books just lacked "something". I love, love, love elephants ever since I saw "The Jungle Book" (still the best Disney movie ever!) Thank you for this informative review

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    1. Yes! I love The Jungle Book. Also best Disney soundtrack, ever.

      If you love elephants but not Picoult, maybe get this one from the library!

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  3. I have no problem with Picoult, but I ended up passing on her after 3 books that felt very formulaic. I thought they were all interesting and well written, but it just became so rote with the courtroom dramas and family woes and that cop/PI guy. BUT I think this shift to elephants sounds interesting and different enough that even if she's employing a lot of her trusty standards I might still get something out of it.

    Also, I stand and applaud for your final paragraph. Fuck them indeed.

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    1. Yes, her "trusty standards" are definitely still there, but this book was a cut above, speaking for myself. But really I was so gobsmacked by so much of the elephant research in this book that I would have overlooked a lot more.

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  4. "Alice disappeared one night after a traumatic accident in the elephant sanctuary"

    Ok, that's....an excellent sentence.

    Also ALL THE BABY ELEPHANT GIFS I LOVE THEM

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    1. Now, don't you go getting any crazy ideas, Alice.

      Baby elephant gifs, are empirically speaking, the best.

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  5. I'm looking forward to this one (being a Picoult fan). Have you read the kindle single, Larger than Life, too? It's a mini prequel about Alice and has be hopeful for Leaving Time

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)