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The Fourteenth Goldfish

Review

The Fourteenth Goldfish

As sixth-grader Ellie adjusts to the social confusion of middle school, her grandfather is undergoing a major transformation of his own. In Grandpa Melvin’s case, it’s a miraculous and unprecedented change. The scientist has discovered a formula to reverse the process of aging and, after testing it on himself, has removed decades from his appearance. When Melvin shows up on Ellie’s doorstep in the form of a 13-year-old boy, the entire family is thrown for a loop. Now Ellie and her grandfather are attending the same school and abiding by the same curfew.

Melvin is convinced his breakthrough will earn him a Nobel Prize. But before he can reveal the secret of immortality, he needs access to his laboratory to finish his experiment. While helping her grandfather, Ellie discovers an aptitude for observation and research. Her self-discovery is catalyzed in part by learning about the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Melvin dazzles her with stories of Jonas Salk and the vaccine for polio, of Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. Melvin Sagarsky seems poised for fame, but what if his finding is more destructive than beneficial?

Jennifer L. Holm achieves stunning realism through the lens of speculative fiction. Even at its most absurd, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH feels truthful and convincing.

Jennifer L. Holm achieves stunning realism through the lens of speculative fiction. Even at its most absurd, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH feels truthful and convincing. A less assured writer would have played the premise for cheap thrills, but Holm is more interested in how the characters interact to deal with Melvin’s reclaimed youth. As soon as Melvin crosses the threshold, he and Ellie’s mom fall into their old pattern of bickering. Post-transformation Melvin still behaves like a 70-something curmudgeon, criticizing his daughter’s choices in men, career and clothing. From this point on, the book is an irresistible mashup of dramedy and science. Nearly every chapter ends on a memorable one-liner that propels the reader forward. Holm’s humor and sincerity allow her to pose heavy questions without showing a heavy hand.

Distinguishing itself from other coming-of-age titles, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH explores the parallel growing pains of a preteen and her grandfather. The fear of aging is pervasive, no matter how many candles are on one’s birthday cake. Grandpa Melvin reads THE CATCHER IN THE RYE for his English class while Ellie’s mom stages a school production of Our Town. Holm’s latest novel is yet another installment in a long tradition of literature about the cycle of life. We can search for the fountain of youth, or sneakily replace our kid’s goldfish when it dies, or --- as Ellie and Melvin find --- we can face and embrace our mortality as a beacon of possibility. 

Reviewed by Emma Kantor on August 27, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish
by Jennifer L. Holm

  • Publication Date: August 26, 2014
  • Genres: Children's
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0375870644
  • ISBN-13: 9780375870644