This is one of those deceiving middle grade novels that seems straight forward and charming but is so deeply layered that the minute you try to examine it you are left with the conclusion that Jenni Holm is a genius and mere mortals should not try to dissect her work.
Ellie does not know what to think when a fourteen year old boy shows up at her door sounding exactly like her grandfather. It turns out he IS her grandfather, a scientist who has discovered T. Melvinius (named after himself, naturally) which has reversed the process of aging. Because he appears to be a teenager he can no longer live alone, drive a car, or access his lab. Ellie and her mother (a wonderfully colourful drama teacher) adjust to having him in the house and Ellie agrees to help him break into his lab, recover the formula, and change the world. But is growing old really so bad?
There is so much to love here I’m not sure where to begin, but let’s start with Mevin himself. Melvin acts like an old man but looks like a teenager, a premise that provides endless comedy. He is forced to go to school where he finds the curriculum lacking, wears a combination of Ellie’s cast-offs and old man standards, and scolds his daughter as if she is the teenager instead of him. Ellie’s observations are wise but age appropriate. Melvin shows up right at the time in which she is growing apart from her former best friend Brianna and trying to find out what her own passion is. Her parents want it to be drama, but could it be that like her grandfather, she likes science? Her mother is struggling with having her disapproving father under the same roof again- even if she is technically the adult. Ellie gets a glimpse of her mother as a girl which opens a whole new world of possibility.
This is the kind of book you need to press into the hands of everyone you know and say “read this so we can talk about it.” It is warm, reassuring, ridiculous, poignant, and totally weird. At times I was reminded of the movie Big, but it says a lot about the book that I cannot think of a specific comp nor can I think of someone who would not love it. Like the humour of Diary of a Wimpy Kid? You’ll love The Fourteenth Goldfish. Prefer stories about friendship and growing up ala Wendy Mass or Rebecca Stead? Look no further! Only like books about magic or fantastical things? Voila!
At 190 pages and featuring short chapters and largish font, this is a feat of brevity, especially considering how rich the book is. Without giving too much away, I was worried we were veering into Flowers for Algernon territory, but Holm gracefully skirts an explosive or maudlin conclusion in favour of a mysterious one. I cannot express how skillful this ending is. Not quite science fiction, not straight up contemporary realism, this is contemporary fiction with a twist- a woefully inadequate way to describe a unique and compelling book. When all else fails, turn to Rebecca Stead, who says of this book “Awesomely strange and startling true-to-life. It makes you wonder what’s possible.”
The Fourteenth Goldfish is available now from Penguin Random House.