The Language of Goldfish deals with a somewhat touchy subject, the insanity of a child. Although written about and for a thirteen-year-old, it reminded me of nothing so much as Judith Guest's Ordinary People, and it is nearly as good, too. Carrie Stokes, good in math and art, plagued by a precocious and attractive older sister, resists the changes of growing up. Her resistance results in a gradual breakdown, including a beautifully depicted suicide attempt seen entirely from the victim's point of view, a hospitalization, and Carrie's painful return to the world of school and daily visits to a psychiatrist. The book operates on many levels; thus, her family's refusal to accept the seriousness of her illness reverberates in her friends' lack of understanding and her own unwillingness to understand why her beloved art teacher would leave her husband for another man. So too Carrie's eventual acceptance of growth and sexuality is marked by her first bra, her first dance class, her attempts at realistic drawing, her ability to accept her mother's refusal to acknowledge the reality of her breakdown. The story is believable and heartwarming. It offers reasonable hope, calm moments of joy, and the possibility of a future, without deviating from a serious appraisal of the problems today's young people face as they try to fit themselves into worlds they don't understand.
The book's technical strengths are many. The dialogue is very good, its terseness reflecting the teenage milieu. The symbols (the island, the bra, the dancing class, Carrie's development as an artist) are there for the reader to find but are never forced. The characters are neither fiends nor angels, just real people doing their flawed best in a flawed world.
Loralee MacPike, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in Best Sellers, Vol. 40, No. 1, April, 1980, p. 39.