The Bad Beginning

January 23, 2017
The Bad Beginning Book Cover The Bad Beginning
The Series of Unfortunate Events, #1
Lemony Snicket (aka David Handler)
Fiction
Listening Library
September 9th, 2003
Audiobook
Library
Brett Helquist
September 30th, 1999

Dear Reader,

I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

With all due respect,

Lemony Snicket 

(via Back Cover)

 

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.

And yet.

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.

29 Comments

  • ichabod2014ic January 23, 2017 at 9:32 am

    I am a proponent of trustiing ones instincts. Your younger self had a feeling about these books that your mature self agreed with. Me too. I am not a fan of ‘dark’ stuff.
    Hooray for Readers Intuition!
    Happy Reading!
    ~Icky. 🙂

    • Jackie B January 23, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Thanks, Icky! When moments like this occur, I am so proud of my younger self. Now, this means I should start reading Robin Hobb STAT then! 🙂
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife January 23, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    I read this one years and years ago, and wasn’t impressed. I recall feeling like I didn’t have the least desire to continue with another one in the series. I don’t remember much else about it. You expressed your thoughts about it beautifully, though!

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      Thanks! It’s so frustrating to feel this way, honestly. But it makes me feel better to know I’m not alone on this!

  • gargoylebruce January 23, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    So you’ll be glued to the Netflix series then?

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:44 pm

      Hahaha. Something like that. 🙂 I’ve been told it was visually stimulating and engaging for a short period of time. I actually watch TV, so it never would have occurred to me.

  • Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity January 23, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    I was exactly the right age to read these when they were in their hyped up days. But I had ZERO interest in them, and read other books instead. And even now, when people still talk about them, I’m hesitant. I own the first book, in case I decide to give it a shot one day, but honestly I’m not even sure I want to. There are so many books I want to read, so why would I pick one up that I am not even sure that I’m going to like? *sigh*

    I’m so sorry that you didn’t end up loving this one! I wish we could love all the books we read.

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:47 pm

      I also wish we could love every book we read! But without the disappointments, the diamonds in the rough wouldn’t be as fantastic. I like the occasional controversial review for the purposes of discussion, too. 🙂

      I agree that you shouldn’t read books that you aren’t interested in. There are far too many others to try reading! That said, if you ever feel like you want to try it, don’t stop yourself based on my review. It’s a short enough book you can get it done quickly.

  • Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel January 23, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    I just realised your posts don’t come up in the WordPress reader. So I subscribed by email. 🙂
    Great review. I have not read A series of Unfortunate events. I hear people raving about the TV series on social media. Sorry you did not enjoy the read. On to the next book hoping it will a good read then.

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      Yup– I have a self-hosted WordPress.org blog, so it doesn’t appear on the reader. One of the disadvantages… There are both pros and cons to self-hosted .org blogs.

      Do you plan on reading this book eventually? Don’t met my review stop you! I’m certain there are plenty of people who love this book series.

  • LizScanlon January 24, 2017 at 5:40 am

    Love your review.. I’ve seen a raving one and now yours… both reviews should give me plenty of ammo to give this one a try as well. I’m a sucker for unpleasant tales!

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:58 pm

      Liis– I think you might really enjoy these stories, honestly. I hope you get to read them some day and let me know what you think!

  • Jasmine January 24, 2017 at 9:51 am

    If the book is not great, how about the movie? Since you have many pictures of Jim Carey..

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 8:59 pm

      I haven’t seen the movie either, honestly. I heard great things about it! I put in these photos since they were part of the film press release collection, so they don’t have any usage rights reserved. I can post them here no problem. 🙂

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea January 24, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Okay how to share my constructive thoughts haha?

    I want to touch on the narration 🙂 I felt that the idea was not so much to actually define words and to help his audience along (even if younger), for me it was more to put the reader in the mindset that he was actually reading or telling a story to young children. More of setting the stage? Think princess bride but with smaller children. This is how I read it, so it completely worked for me. I can definitely agree though, I do not do condescending so I would have been put off if it had come across in any other manner.

    I do agree on the characters to an extent. The poor children are pretty miserable and drab. I know they are supposed to be. They have been handed a very bad deck. But this helped me except that they were not going to stand out. I found Olaf to be fascinating though. I loved his complete lack of morals while dealing with children. It felt fitting for a villain in such a dark and depressing environment.

    I did enjoy that for me the book promoted strength and courage in the most dire of situations. I love how the children persevere through their own knowledge and cleverness.

    You are right, there is no charm to be had in this little book. That is certain. I can also easily see why you feel the way you do. Even as someone who took the opposite from the experience, it is hard to argue your points. Very understandable why this is not going work for many.

    Eeek! I love comparing and trading with you <3 Excellent review Jackie!

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 9:36 pm

      YES! This is why we blog! Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your opinions, Danielle! Please do this more often. 🙂

      I think that’s a legitimate perspective about the narration. It’s hard to get the sense that someone is telling a story. I love your analogy to The Princess Bride; that aspect of the film was really important to my engagement. I did notice the narration aspect, but listening to the audiobook I didn’t need that reinforcement. I wonder if reading the physical book my thoughts would have been different.

      Olaf was a great fairy tale style bad guy. As I only read the first book, I know that he’ll come back, but I can’t imagine how he could be a quality recurring villain… Regardless, he made for a wonderful villain, I concur. I just wish he either had fewer troupe members helping him out, or that they were easier to identify. Again, all the characters seemed the same to me, so it was hard to separate them without hearing their description. Again.

      I also agree about how this book promotes strength and courage. I think it also shows perseverance and teaches that just because you are unhappy doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to improve it. That said, it was a rough way to get there.

      Thanks for your well considered opinions! I’m so glad we can share this!

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea January 26, 2017 at 5:50 pm

        I have not completed the series. Now I am really hoping to so I can see how well the rest of this plays out for me.

        I am also tempted to listen to the audio to see how it affects the narration aspect. I can easily see it playing out differently in that sense <3

        • Jackie B January 28, 2017 at 9:40 pm

          If you get to the rest of the series, let me know what you think! I am definitely interested to see if this improves as it progresses.

  • drcupcake45 January 25, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    I’m always impressed by your reviews. You’re so honest and break down the good, the bad and the ugly of each book. I was wondering, how do you determine when to put the book down versus keep reading and hope it gets better?

    • Jackie B January 25, 2017 at 9:51 pm

      Thanks! I don’t have a hard and fast rule for DNF’s (Did Not Finish). Typically, I’ll read 30-40% before I decide to stop. I could be put off sooner, though. This typically occurs because I don’t like the characters, they aren’t developing, the plot is dull, the writing is bad, I am offended in some way (typically misogynist or racist characters which are not helping progress the story, only being jerks)– and, sadly, because I just can’t get into it in some way. For example, I have DNF’d quite a few classics because I just couldn’t turn the pages much more.

      That said, I *always* try to finish books for book club. This was read for my Kids Lit Book Club. I find that DNF’s are fine, but then I can’t contribute as much. I like to speak as clearly and articulately as I can in those situations. And the best way: Finish the book.

      That said… I’ve had to power through some less than great books to get there. O_o

  • cw @ readthinkponder January 26, 2017 at 4:00 am

    Oh thank goodness I’m not the only one who doesn’t really understand these books.
    I read this when I was young and later when I was in university, but I don’t think they are for me. I agree – I found the repetitive narrative very offputting and the ‘THIS IS HOW YOU MAY FEEL’ difficult to enjoy. 😐 Maybe I am missing something? Ah, I don’t know. Just not for me, I guess. XD

    • Jackie B January 26, 2017 at 4:27 pm

      I’m not alone! Oh, that feels so good. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, CW. I don’t think we are missing anything. I just think we aren’t the intended audience.

  • Amanda @Cover2CoverMom January 27, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    I recently listened to this book as well in preparation for the Netflix series adaptation. While I thought Tim Curry was an excellent narrator, I think the audiobook was not done well. I was very distracted by the sound effects and the background music. I am going to actually give the paper version a try and see if I like that better. I will say that my family and I started watching the Netflix adaptation and we are LOVING it. I was annoyed with the narrator (Lemony) in the audiobook, but it translates much better to TV. This was one of my little brother’s favorite series as a kid, and I typically trust his judgment, so I am going to give a different version a go.

    • Jackie B January 28, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Hey– that’s a great observation about the sound effects and background music. I wonder if I used that as an excuse to tune out? Let me know if reading the paper version is a different experience for you. I’m glad it works better as a TV show! Have you seen the film? I haven’t, but the pictures were part of the press package (#UsageRights).

      It was also MY little brother’s favorite book series (well, when he wasn’t reading Harry Potter) as a kid. Fascinating.

  • Diana January 29, 2017 at 10:38 am

    I was really intrigued by the blurb.It sounded clever and made me want to read the book.Sad to hear that the book was disappointing though.It sounds like it just didn’t deliver.Thanks for the honest review.I don’t think I’ll pick this one up.

    • Jackie B January 30, 2017 at 11:59 am

      This is one of those books which is incredibly polarizing apparently. I’ve run into people who adore it, and people who hate it. Mind you, most of the people who adore this book read this when they were young originally. So, perhaps nostalgia is the limiting factor?

  • theorangutanlibrarian March 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    I really agree with you here- your younger self was right not to bother. I have to say though I started the series when I was a child and was like “meh, it’ll do”, but when I got to 12+ I was so bored with it that I just couldn’t continue. The one thing I did love about it was the weird and wonderful dedications at the start of the book- did you notice those?

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