The Fourteenth Goldfish is sort of sci-fi, sort of magical realism. Sci-fi realism? On one level the book is about a grandfather who discovers a way to reverse age and becomes a teenager again. But mostly the book is just about family and coming-of-age. Not even in a that’s-just-the-theme way like just about every book for kids is about coming of age in some way and a lot of books are about family. Like, the real central plot of this book is about family, and the reverse aging thing is the secondary plot. And the glossing over of half the interesting stuff is why I had a hard time with this book that everyone else and their mom is totally in love with.
The book begins with Ellie’s mom bringing home an obnoxious teenage boy, declaring that this boy is actually her father, Ellie’s grandfather. This “fact” is questioned for, like, maybe half a second. No one in the family exhibits any minute shred of doubt for the rest of the book. The one other person that they reveal the truth to questions it for a little bit longer, but is very easily convinced. Grandpa received a sample of a weird jellyfish from someone and he used it to completely reverse his aging so far that he now looks like a teenager again. And even though he is not, he must act like a teenager and go to school like a teenager because he looks like one and what on earth would the world do if someone who looked like a teenager didn’t go to school?!?!
There’s also the matter of Grandpa needing to get back into his lab to get this reverse aging stuff but he can’t get back in because, you know, he looks like a teenager. He is also only friends with people who are pre-teens, so they face a similar problem.
And then there’s the real story, about Ellie growing up and becoming comfortable as a person and with her mom and her potential new step-dad and her normal dad and her (teenage) grandpa and what it means to be a good friend and daughter and grand-daughter.
So the whole sci-fi aspect of the story has to take a backseat, which is not inherently bad. I like the idea of a whole genre of middle grade sci-fi realism. Haruki Murikami for the swing-set set. But it just never comes together in a way that makes sense to me. I want people to wonder about this whole reverse aging thing, and not just to question the what but the why. Why would you want to be a teenager again? What does it mean to be a teenager? Can you be a teenager if you’re really 70 years old?
There’s so much potential in this book! It just never gets there.