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Book Review: The Beatrice Letters (A Series of Unfortunate Events) by Lemony Snicket

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It's been a long time since The Bad Beginning. Seven years, in fact, since we first met the Baudelaire children on the day they became the Baudelaire orphans. The books, which I often describe as Edward Gorey-esque, are an antidote to the saccharine "good conquers evil, intelligence, and perseverance are always rewarded" tales that are often staples of kiddie lit. Here, no matter how good the kids are — no matter how smart, no matter how ethical — they just can't seem to get a break.

That sense of subversion is part of what made me fall in love with Lemony Snicket, the Baudelaires, and the Unfortunate Events. But what really clinched it is the use of language. Lemony Snicket is wickedly funny. The writing is drenched in the love of words; if word love were a flammable substance, these books would be dangerous. You wouldn't be able to read them in direct sunlight. Daniel Handler, in his Lemony Snicket cloak, is one of those writers who make me turn a little green: I wish I were that funny, that playful with the language, had that keen an ability to skewer the conventions of a genre.

Over the past few weeks, I've had plenty of opportunity to look at Lemony Snicket. In anticipation of The End, I've finally finished my reading of the last few books in the series. Over the summer, I read The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, and The Penultimate Peril within a few weeks of one another. This was the most concentrated reading I've ever done of Lemony Snicket, and I am very pleased to say the stylized tone did not get the least bit tedious during my immersion. I finished up the books feeling delighted with what the English language can do. More surprisingly, I found myself genuinely curious about how the end will unfold.

There has been a mystery amid the unfortunate events since about the midway point, when we were introduced to VFD. That mystery grew in the later books, and though I don't have an elaborate theory about how this series will end, the way I do for that other grown-up grabbing kid lit series, I am now, after those last few books, far more curious about how these mysteries will play out. Up until about book nine, all the mysteries were incidental to me. Now, I would probably feel a twinge of disappointment if the series were to conclude without some answers.

And, unlike Harry Potter, that's not a given. Handler, as Snicket, has played with the rules of the genre in such a way I, at least, am guessing about whether we'll get a happy ending for the three orphans, or answers to our questions, or whether there will be some kind of greater calamity. I suspect, based on the mood of the books, we will have a moment where the kids win, sort of, with the thrill of victory tempered by an acute awareness of all they have lost. After all, in these latest books, the grays of the world have featured heavily; the Baudelaires have been forced to decide whether their dire circumstances justify villainous actions and if they can still be so sure they are not villains given what has happened around them; increasingly, they also wonder about the things they have done. As the hook-handed man says, "People aren't either wicked or noble…They're like chef's salad, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict."

And so, in a way, the book is about the mysteries of life, about the mystery of how to live in a world that sometimes seems to be full of malice, greed, and directed hostility. Of course, thinking about these books as having a message, a teachable moment, takes some of the subversive glee of them away; kids books don't have to be purposeful to be worth reading, after all.

There are, however, several hopeful events that take place in books 10, 11 and 12. The Baudelaires have reason to believe one of their parents may have survived, for one thing. Sunny grows up, from baby to toddler, a very capable and independent one at that. Most optimistically, both Violet and Klaus experience the first stirrings of love. Then again, looking back on my own teenage years, that might be a series of unfortunate events of its own, though far more mundane. Still, there is something beautiful when Snicket writes:

So, as Violet and Quigley rest for a few minutes more on a ledge halfway up the frozen waterfall, I will take this opportunity to give them a bit of privacy, by not writing down anything more of what happened between these two friends on that chilly afternoon … I will tell you that the two young people resumed their climb, and that the afternoon slowly turned to evening and that both Violet and Quigley had small secret smiles on their faces…

I was surprised at the depth of emotion I felt, at the idea of Violet having that small happiness. It's a testament to these books; they are so very specific in their style that the style is always what I think of first, but clearly the characters matter.

And you can never forget Lemony Snicket himself is one of those characters. In fact, some of the biggest mysteries of the series may be those that have nothing to do with the Baudelaire orphans. They have to do with the author himself and his beloved Beatrice. After all, it has also been seven years since the first mention of Beatrice: "darling, dearest, dead." In many ways, she has been the real enigma of these unfortunate events, at least as mysterious as Olaf, VFD, and the assortment of surprise siblings who are connected to the Baudelaires. And so, with this curiosity in mind, I also read the The Beatrice Letters.

The Beatrice Letters reminded me, on a much smaller scale, of Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine series. The book, with its open-to-multiple-interpretations cover, opens up to reveal a kind of dossier. Inside, a poster with a sad scene at sea, and a bound volume of letters. Some of the letters are on note cards, others are typed. Photographs are pasted inside, and some of the letters have been marked up with notes. There are also other letters: punch-out letters, which reveal a rather alarming message about the author's beloved. The design of the book is pleasing; it plays with form the same way the text does. As for information, though, it seemed to raise many more questions about Beatrice (Beatrices?) than it answered. As with the Unauthorized Autobiography, the content was not as good as in the novels, but I loved the spirit of the book so much in this case, all was forgiven.

In a month's time, I will come to my last conclusions about Lemony Snicket, the woe-begotten Baudelaires, Beatrice, Count Olaf, Mr. Poe, and all the other peculiar characters who've propelled these unfortunate events. I'll be sad to say goodbye to this series; I have reveled in the misery of these orphans, and in the sorrowful way their stories have been told. There is a place in children's literature for lessons, for realism, for morality, for issues, for social conditioning. But if we want to create lifelong readers, there is no better approach than the one in this series: Language is fun; it doesn't have to be taken seriously, and neither do the books that are made up of it. There's nothing like not taking something seriously to give it a magical kind of significance, a permanence that will last after the more seriously taken books have been forgotten.

Lemony Snicket is a publishing phenomenon that is good for you, because it's good. It's as simple as that, and that's far more simple than any ending is likely to be.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • trey stephens

    is lemony snicket going to make another to the baudlaire series