Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

During a recent book club meeting, one member asked if an author has an obligation to tie up all loose threads and uphold the natural laws within the universe he or she has created. I say “yes”--emphatically.

The book under discussion was Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time. It is the tale of Jenna, a thirteen-year-old child in search of her mother. Adults advise her to stop looking for her mother. They ask her if she could bear the knowledge that her mother left her behind and has never been moved to return or worse, that her mother is dead.

Jenna doesn’t heed the advice of psychic Serenity, private investigator Virgil, or her own grandmother. The truth is what Jenna seeks.

Mother and daughter were separated when Jenna was three years old. Jenna has searched online records to learn some of what happened ten years earlier. One woman, Nevvie, lay dead. Another woman, Jenna’s mother Alice, lay injured.

Virgil tried to solve the mystery of Nevvie’s death, but never followed up when Alice checked herself out of the hospital, never to be seen again. Jenna’s father, Thomas, may have been the killer. An unstable man, he’s been confined to a mental hospital ever since.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna appeals to Serenity and Virgil to help her find out more. Serenity, by the way, was once an accurate psychic who predicted incorrectly for a prominent and powerful man. She lost her credibility and worse, her belief in herself. She’s honest about both, and reluctantly, agrees to help Jenna.

Loose threads and odd quirks in Picoult’s universe show up early in the novel, however. Jenna, for example, often complains of feeling invisible, especially when the person she needs to help her is a young adult. Small children acknowledge her now and then, but usually, an older adult, past retirement age, emerges from a back room to assist her.

Jenna also bumps against anachronisms. Gideon, for example, a man who cared for Alice deeply, is the only one to wear a uniform from the workplace where Nevvie died while seemingly employed in another state years later. Odder still is the fact that Jenna learns Virgil died, but she tracks him down anyway, working in another city from a cluttered office where the landlady wears clothing from an era long gone.

Are those the spirits of those who cannot move on caught on camera?
Photo provided by Al Griffin. Photo taken at Missouri Town 1855.

These loose threads are, of course, the truth. (Spoiler Alert: I will reveal the plot twist now.) Jenna did not survive the night ten years earlier. Virgil is also dead as are Gideon, Nevvie, and Jenna’s grandmother. Serenity has recovered her lost gifts except she’s unaware that she’s seeing dead people.

Serenity buys Virgil a plane ticket. She buys Jenna and Virgil big meals and converses with them as the three eat, shocking those nearby. She finds Nevvie’s home, but flees it after a close encounter of the poltergeist kind. 

These are but a few of the loose threads in a universe with quirks. Why does three-year-old Jenna age ten years in the spirit world while others remain tied to their age and dress at the time of death? How did Jenna grow so jaded about some aspects of human existence while remaining na├»ve about others? Why does Virgil need the assistance of a deceased ticket attendant to board a plane? In fact, why do any of the ghosts need transportation used by the living? Why doesn’t anyone call protective or medical services when they see Serenity talking to air? Who eats all that food? And why do ghosts need to eat? These are questions Picoult leaves unanswered while successfully laboring to explain that the dead don’t always know they’re dead.

Having consumed a steady diet of science fiction for a decade from college and beyond, I can assure you that science fiction readers demand that the universe created hold up to scrutiny. It may not mirror Earth’s natural laws, but the laws of that universe must be consistent and logical once established.

Picoult leaves loose threads, and she invents an anachronistic universe that proves inconsistent and illogical. Furthermore, the quirks betrayed the plot twist long before the word count arrives at that twist so as I read, often impatiently, I read to learn who killed Nevvie, how Gideon died, whether Alice survived after leaving the hospital, and why poor little Jenna couldn’t move on. Picoult answered these questions, fulfilling her obligations as a writer of mysteries, but those other loose threads left me feeling used. However much I enjoyed the parallels between elephants and humans, the passages underscoring the bond between mother and child, and the explorations on grief, I felt used by the heavy demands upon my willing suspension of disbelief.

Reading Challenge:

Read Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult to answer the book club member’s question for yourself? Should readers hold it as a fault if an author fails to tie up all loose threads?

Writing Challenge:

What are the limits of a willing suspension of disbelief?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.