A Series of Unfortunate Events was first published when I was in high school. So, I did not read these books as a child. I have no fond memories of it or any such thing. In fact, it didn’t really sound appealing to me. Now, as an adult, I finally read it. And all I can say is that younger me was sooooo right.
When The Bad Beginning begins Baudelaire children are now the Baudelaire orphans. Their wealthy parents died in a house fire where no one was saved and all their worldly possessions went up in smoke. Suddenly, the three children, Sunny, Klaus and Violet, are being shuttled off to a distant relative to live. Only this relative, Count Olaf, is a good-for-nothing villain who is only caring for the children to inherit their fortune. As you can imagine, and as Mr. Lemony Snicket reminds the readers constantly, nothing good can befall the Baudeliare orphans in such a situation.
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.
I think there is promise in a children’s story where dark and terrible things happen. The Brothers Grimm fairy tales are certainly a collection of awful things happening to children. Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll wrote similar dark fantasy for children. These stories show children how to be resilient, how to persevere, and how to face failure (though, they do sometimes die in the Grimm tales…). These stories show us how to handle our failure and how to rise above it.
There was little this book provided me which I found even remotely entertaining.
I believe there is a lot which is worthwhile between these pages. And yet, the narration from one Mr. Lemony Snicket was so incredibly distracting that I couldn’t enjoy any of it. He is attempting to be witty, but I felt like he was patronizing. I know this is a book written for children. But defining words constantly felt like I was being condescended to. When selecting a narrator, the author can select to talk up or down to his reader. Yes, some of these words might need defining for younger children. But don’t do it in a way which is demeaning:
…occasionally their parents have them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word ‘rickety’, you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’ – alone to the seashore…
The repetitive nature defining words is not the only repetitive nature of this narration. We are constantly reminded how terrible everything is going to be, and all the jokes are repetitions on the same dreary theme (I’m looking at you, jokes about Sunny biting things all the time and making nonsense sounds). I don’t want to be told how to feel. I want to experience the events of the book and make a decision for myself.
That said, I also struggled with the characters. Like in most fairy tales, all our characters are fairly flat. This is nothing new, as single-faceted characters tell a stronger moral story. But there is no real moral to be gleaned from this story. As the first of a very long series, The Bad Beginning only is the tip of the iceberg (apparently). But our characters all feel cliché and undifferentiated. In fact, all of them except Sunny seem to have the same size vocabulary and speech patterns, making them indistinguishable from each other in most cases.
Your initial opinions on just about anything may change over time.
(Not likely, Mr. Snicket. Not likely)
Lastly, I struggled with the content. The narration style does not align well to the more mature themes of the book. The children are coping with the death of their family, adults who won’t listen, torture, coercion, and abuse. In fact, this book more or less reinforces that adults won’t help you if you are in an abusive situation. You should figure it out on your own. And even if you do figure it out, the adults won’t let you get around it (I swear Mr. Poe, you are the devil). Ugh.
The result here is I was told about a series of unfortunate events where nothing stood out. Not the characters, the humor, the writing style… There was no charm or whimsy like Dahl or Carroll. No moral or lesson to be learned like Grimm. There was nothing for me to connect to at all. I lost interest early on and was not remotely invested in the characters. Nor did I care to discover how the story ended. I just wanted it over.
Two stars. One whole star for listening to Tim Curry narrate the audiobook. One star for the fact that I even finished the book. Well, maybe a half star. 1.5 stars. Eh. Who are we kidding? One star.
Yup. That’s better.