I’ve been wanting to reread A Series of Unfortunate Events for a while, and with the Netflix series premiering in just a week and change, now seems like a good time. So, leading up to Friday the 13th, I’ll be posting reviews of the first four books—the ones covered in the TV series. I could stop there, but as soon as I started reading the first one I was hooked, and I could easier stop drinking coffee than stop reading these books at this point. So I’ll keep posting reviews after that, I don’t know how often, but at least weekly.
The Only Series That Matters
I’ll start by explaining, why this series? Between the ages of six and ten, I read a lot of YA and middle grade books, and a lot of book series—The Underland Chronicles, The Inheritance Cycle, Magic Treehouse, the Alex Rider books, the Alfred Kropp books, Goosebumps, Animorphs, Captain Underpants, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and others. Some of these series I read all the way through, others I didn’t. But as far as I was concerned, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter were the only series that mattered. There were no other books that I reread so often as the books in those series. They were the two pillars of children’s literature for me. Looking back on all the books I read as a kid, those are the only series I’m still interested in rereading—and, although Harry Potter was my favorite when I was a kid, Unfortunate Events is the series I now care about rereading most. The books introduced me to so many concepts, phrases, quotes, and words which have stuck with me to this day. Molotov cocktails, Friedrich Nietzsche, mob psychology, waxing and waning—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, the series looms large in my childhood, and hopefully these posts will explain why, as well as illuminate other matters I find interesting along the way.
Where Are We?
If you actually try to figure out the time and place in which these books occur, you’ll have a difficult time. It seems like England, particularly London, from the fact that the main antagonist is a Count, there is mention of “Royal Gardens” (18), and a reference to “the London branch of the Herpetological Society” in the letter to the editor at the end of the book. Determining the time is more tricky. On one hand, there is the use of the word “automobile,” and the appearance of “horse-drawn carriages” on “cobblestone streets” (18). It seems like turn-of-the-century London, yet there are anachronisms, like a court case involving “illegal use of someone’s credit card” (35) and Violet’s wistful desire for an inventing studio with “an elaborate computer system.” (59) So where are we? When are we?
Nowhere. The books are fantasy. They’re set in a world that is some combination of Dickens and the Believe it or Not panel. Although all of the events of the first book are physically possible, the following books stretch reality, while still feeling like they belong in the same world. Understanding the setting is less about exact, concrete touchstones that point to a real time and place, and more about becoming immersed in the mood and feeling of the writing. It’s less about knowing where this world exists in relation to our current time, and more about knowing that this is a world of grappling hooks, private libraries, rickety trolleys, tattoos of eyes, hooks for hands, and infernos.
From what I’ve seen of the trailers, the visual style of the TV series nails this, and serves in place of Handler’s prose, as a form of world-building, quite nicely.
Orphans, again. There’re always dead parents in books about kids, or at least one dead parent. Just from the series I listed above, this trope is present in The Underland Chronicles, The Inheritance Cycle, the Alex Rider books, the Alfred Kropp books, Animorphs (to some extent), The Spiderwick Chronicles, and, of course, Harry Potter. And why not mention A Wrinkle in Time and Oliver Twist while we’re at it?
So yeah, orphans again. The series is about three orphans being moved from guardian to guardian, alway pursued by Count Olaf, who schemes to steal their inheritance. Why is it that A Series of Unfortunate Events has such a claim to being depressing and sad and dark, and all these other books with dead parents don’t? Because of the way the trope is handled, and presented.
Unlike every other book I just mentioned, in The Bad Beginning, we actually see the scene in which the children are told that their parents are dead, and their house has been consumed in a fire. We see Mr. Poe, the executor of their parents’ estate, fumbling with small talk before he tells them what has happened. We see Violet wonder if he’s making a joke.We see them grieving for their parents, and for the utter destruction of their previous lives. It isn’t glossed over in a paragraph of summary. It isn’t something that happened when they were just toddlers. It’s right there in the opening chapter of the book, and it’s treated with psychological realism. The scene is iconic Unfortunate Events to me. It’s bleak, uncomfortable, and gritty.
Sunny Liked to Bite Things
Unfortunately, the subtle touches of this scene aren’t frequent throughout the book. It’s not that the main characters, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, are unrealistic—it’s just that the book moves so quickly, there’s so little time between investigating and outsmarting and escaping for them to just be regular people. They come off like video game characters, defined solely by their special skill. This issue improves in later books, but it is glaring in this one.
Even so, their special skills are interesting because of how lopsided they are. Violet’s specialty is inventing things, Klaus’s is his wide range of knowledge from all the books he’s read, and Sunny’s (the baby) is biting things with her sharp teeth. Normally, in fiction for children and for adults, the focus would be on physical ability, and intellectual ability would be relegated to a single side character. With the Baudelaires, it’s the opposite. Sunny is the one with the physical ability, and she is, both because of her age and the fact that’s she’s just one out of three, marginalized. Intellectual ability is the main method for action in these books, represented in two different aspects. Violet embodies problem solving and creating thinking, while Klaus embodies the acquisition and application of knowledge. I think the fact that these two abilities are shown as different, separate skills, and not just lumped into one character who is The Smart One, is part of what sets these books apart.
So I didn’t actually talk that much about The Bad Beginning, and mostly I just talked about the basic elements of the whole series. Well, The Bad Beginning is the shortest book by a long mark, so there’s less to talk about. Grim as it is, it might be the most conventional-children’s-lit book of the series.
I highly recommend reading it. The book is wonderfully written, full of dry wit and eerie descriptions. If you have a kid, or are a kid, I recommend it even more highly. The book reads quickly, moving from twist to turn, and although it has lots of high-level vocabulary, the narrator, or the characters themselves, frequently stop to explain the words in an appropriately wry and humorous manner.
And it has pictures.
And it’s the only series that matters.
“They didn’t understand it, but like so many unfortunate events in life, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.” (162)
–The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket