“The moral of this story is that sometimes, you can attempt to make all the difference in the world, and it still is like trying to stem the tide with a sieve. The moral of this story is that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we want it … some stories just don’t have a happy ending.”
Oh, my poor heart.
This book. This book is hard for someone who has a heart that cries for hurting animals. This book is horrible for someone who has lost a daughter. This book. This beautiful, sad, terrible, wonderful book.
This book was a fast read. It was utterly engrossing, and drew me right into it’s world from the very start. I didn’t know nearly as much about elephants when I began this book, but as it takes place primarily on an elephant reserve, and among groups of elephants in Africa, there is so very much to learn. What animals I have lived my life amongst is … well, mostly cats. Throw in a couple of dogs and a bunny rabbit and some brief interludes with fish and birds. But I adore animals, and like Alice, one of the main characters and narrators of the book, I feel like I understand their emotions. I, too, have seen animals grieve. I have seen them love. And I know that when people claim we are just anthropomorphizing, that they have simply not known animals enough to see the rich emotional lives they live under the surface of instinctive behaviour.
This book is about love and forgiveness and loss, and it is about motherhood, most specifically the grieving of mothers who lose their babies, whether human or animal.
“I think grief is like a really ugly couch. It never goes away. You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room—but eventually, you learn to live with it.”
Okay, and there is a cute baby elephant to make everyone feel better.
Alice is researching grief in elephants when a stranger comes to visit the reserve in Africa. She assumes he is another zookeeper or circus manager, both of which she has no respect for, because of how they treat animals, and she is ready to dismiss him, until she learns that he runs a rescue organization in the US, for elephants that have been mistreated by humans and need space to recover and find themselves again. It’s love.
Jenna is searching for her mother, Alice, who went missing one tragic night on her father’s elephant reserve. Her father never reported her mother missing, neither did the grandmother with whom Jenna lives, now. She would do anything to find Alice, which leads her to the door of a failed former psychic and the steps of the detective who brought her mother to the hospital just before she vanished.
“I wonder if, as you get older, you stop missing people so fiercely. Maybe growing up is just focusing on what you’ve got, instead of what you don’t.”
Serenity once had a gift. From the time she was a child, she could talk to the dead, see them wandering about the living, connect with them through her spirit guides. But when she got too cocky about her gift and made a huge public mistake, she was ruined professionally, and in anger she dismissed her spirit guides, telling them to leave her – and they did, along with her psychic powers. How can she help this girl who has come to her in need, when she’s lost touch with the world she was once such a part of?
And then there is Marrah, an elephant with a tragic history of abuse, who arrives at the reserve pregnant – though no one knows it yet. When she goes into labor something is obviously wrong, but no one wants to hear that from Alice, and eventually Alice alone is left to witness the birth, and Marrah’s loss of her baby. Alice has to take the place of the other elephants which should be there to support Marrah, creating an unquestionable bond between the two. What would Marrah do to protect Alice and her own baby, Jenna?
These stories are sad, weaving back and forth through time and from the perspectives of the different characters. And this book is very character driven. I came to love the women in this book – some of the men too. Okay, only Virgil, but he’s very special, in the way that I love Worf on Star Trek because he’s so grumpy and awful and unlovable most of the time but has this amazing heart on the inside and loyalty that will outshine anyone else.
And of course, I really enjoyed the writing. I love Picoult as an author, and like most of her books this one had a “big twist” that left me a little breathless. Though it certainly explained a lot, and I didn’t get mad at her for it as I have with some books. The prose is lovely, and just the style I like to read, and her research was impeccable – do read the notes at the end of the book for the real-life stories of the elephants, in particular, that inspired the book.
“There are an endless number of people who have left a love-shaped hole in the heart of someone else. Eventually someone brave and stupid will come along and try to fill that hole. But it never works, and so instead, that selfless soul winds up with a gap in his heart, too. And so on. It’s a miracle that anyone survives, when so much of us is missing.”