Book the First: The Bad Beginning
The author, Lemony Snicket, lets the reader know right from the start that The Bad Beginning isn’t going to have a happy ending, so if that’s what you are looking for, then you “would be better of reading some other book.” Snicket is very personable and often speaks directly to the reader as he tells these tales of the Baudelaire children. He appears to travel in well-to-do circles, running off on trips and lounging on friend’s boats as he writes. He teaches the reader about words by constantly referring to their meaning. For example, when he writes about a meal that includes blanched green beans, he lets the reader know that “the word ‘blanched’ here means boiled.”
The series of unfortunate events all happen to the Baudelaire children. They are Violet, the eldest child, who is a clever inventor, Klaus the middle child, who is a voracious reader and Sunny, who is so young that she only speaks in one-syllable exclamations that her siblings understand. Luckily, Snicket makes clear for the reader what she means. Her talent is biting, which strangely enough comes in useful at times.
In the first chapter, the children are playing at the beach when they find out that their parents “perished in a fire that destroyed the entire house.” Mr. Poe, the banker who now handles the children’s affairs, tells the children and escorts them to live with their uncle Count Olaf. He’s a brutal man who treats the children like slaves. He is an actor and tries to get the children’s money by getting Violet to wed him in a play, which through some maneuvering on Olaf’s part would be legally binding. Klaus and Violet figure out the plan, but Sunny is held prisoner and threatened with death if Violet doesn’t go through with it
The way Violet outsmarts Olaf makes absolutely no sense. I would be surprised if children believed it. Snicket tries to explain it away, but I thought of a number of different, believable scenarios that would have worked, so I was disappointed in the resolution.
One great bit of writing takes place when Snicket conveys Klaus’ exhaustion as he reads a law book in an effort to figure out Olaf’s plan. Snicket writes the sentence “He found himself reading the same sentence over and over” three times in a row. It made me think I was drifting off and I had a laugh when I discovered what had happened.
Snicket interrupts the story and suggests that the reader stop at a certain point when it appears that Olaf is going to jail and the Baudelaire children will live happily ever after with Justice Strauss who would make a wonderful adoptive parent. He does this because that wonderful ending isn’t what’s going to happen.
Book the Second: The Reptile Room
The Baudelaire children are sent to live with their next nearest relative, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. As soon as we read about Dr. Montgomery, Snicket lets us know that he will be dying soon. He does this repeatedly throughout the novel, which is a great device for building suspense.
Snicket’s presence is felt more throughout this book. He ends one chapter with a suspenseful event, involving Sunny and The Incredibly Deadly Viper, and then apologizes for where he ended the previous chapter because he had to leave for a prior engagement. He explains what dramatic irony is and then when dramatic irony takes place, he points out its use.
He doesn’t treat the readers like children by shielding them from bad things. Characters die and he discusses how sometimes it is good and necessary to lie. While that might cause some parents concern, he is safety-minded and includes a page-long warning about “never, ever, ever…” fiddling around with electric devices the way Violet does.
Dr. Montgomery is a wonderful man who is very happy to have the children stay with him. He has a plan to go on an expedition to Peru and wants them to come along. Also accompanying them will be his new assistant, Stephano, who the children recognize as Count Olaf. He’s shaved off his eyebrows and grown a beard but the eye tattoo on his ankle gives him away. The children confront him, but he threatens to kill them if they tell.
As foreshadowed, Montgomery turns up dead and Stephano plans to take the children to Peru where the laws aren’t as strict, so he can get away with killing them. On their way to the ship they get into a car accident with Mr. Poe. The children try to tell Mr. Poe that Stephano is Count Olaf, but when they all look at his ankle, the eye tattoo is gone. The children need to prove that Stephano is Olaf and also prove that he murdered Montgomery or else they will no doubt be the victims of foul play in Peru at the hands of Count Olaf.
The conclusion of this book was much smarter and more believable then the first, making it more satisfying. At one point in this book, Snicket wishes that he could tell a different story or at least have a different outcome. He even suggests that you close the book and imagine a happy ending and never read the rest of this horrifying story.
Book the Third: The Wide Window
Next up for the Baudelaire orphans is a stay with their Aunt Josephine, who always corrects people’s grammar and punctuation, including Sunny, who can’t make intelligible sounds yet. Aunt Josephine lives high on a mountain in a house supported by unsafe-looking stilts. The house overlooks Lake Lachrymose, which she is scared of because she lost her husband Ike in it because he didn’t wait an hour after eating before going in the water. He didn’t get cramps, as you would expect; Lachrymose Leeches who could still smell the food on him attacked and killed him.
Aunt Josephine is scared of everything including the stove so the children have to eat cold food. Snicket makes mention of how silly it is to be scared of some of the things Aunt Josephine is scared of like realtors. He notes that you should only be scared of real scary things like monsters under your bed.
In town the children run into Count Olaf who is disguised as Captain Sham, which in this case doesn’t mean “a trick that deludes” because the children see through his disguise immediately. Aunt Josephine meets Captain Sham and finds him to be charming, which is bad news for the children.
One night it appears as if Aunt Josephine has jumped out of a window and committed suicide. She left a note behind which turns over the responsibility of the children to Captain Sham. Klaus looks at the letter and notices all the writing errors in it. When he tries to point this out, Violet doesn’t listen to him this time, which is out of character and only done to force events in a certain direction. It’s similar to the same way that Mr. Poe doesn’t accept the children’s theory that Sham is Olaf after they were the ones who pointed out previously in The Reptile Room that Stephano was Olaf. The one saving grace for Mr. Poe was that he did ask to look at Sham’s ankle to see if the eye tattoo was there, finding only a wooden peg leg.
It was interesting to discover how Klaus deciphered Aunt Josephine’s secret message in the suicide note. There’s a very dramatic, exciting scene as the orphans cross Lachrymose Lake with a hurricane approaching as the leeches attacked their boat. Violet sets a fire by using a magnifying glass and moonlight, which I didn’t know was possible and still have my doubts about.
Considering the series is supposed to go on for a total of 13 books, it should be no surprise that this third book repeats the pattern of Olaf escaping at the end and the children having no guardian to stay with. The books are all fun adventures with enough darkness, danger and death to keep the stakes compelling, creating a feeling that the reader never quite knows what’s going to happen to the characters. The books are quick reads and enjoyable enough that I can overlook some of the forced, questionable tactics by Snicket to keep the story moving along and recommend them. They are fun for kids of all ages as long as you remember they are children’s books.
These first three books now come with movie tie-in covers that have pictures of Jim Carrey as the many incarnations of Count Olaf. There’s a note from Count Olaf on the back of the book jacket that promotes the movie and tells you not to bother with the books, which seems like odd marketing. They are an attempt to copy the letters from Snicket that appear on the backs of the books, trying to dissuade you from reading the books, but Olaf’s letters don’t work. Why would he think he was the star of the movie, but not the star of the book? Obviously this is the work of marketing weasels that don’t understand the cleverness of Mr. Snicket. Kids aren’t going to see the movie because of Jim Carrey; they are going on the strength of the stories.