The Story: A Series of Unfortunate Events, penned by Lemony Snicket (pseudonym for American author Daniel Handler), consists of thirteen novels: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and The End. These books follow the dreadful misadventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. All three children are dealt a horrible blow when, one day, they’re told their parents perished in a mysterious house fire. This lands them in the care of various distant relatives, the most notorious of which being the villainous Count Olaf, who stops at nothing to get his clutches on the Baudelaire fortune. Throughout the course of the series, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny must band their skills, strengths, and wits together if they have any hope of defeating Olaf and his minions. However, as the series’ title is no spoiler, their efforts often come up short against Olaf’s evil schemes.
(Just to note, this review focuses only on the book series, not the 2004 theatrical release nor the 2017 Netflix series.)
I will give this independent readers’ series credit for using reverse psychology in its marketing, which goes a little something like this: these books are so full of misery and so beset with woe that you should not read them. So naturally that makes you want to read them and, to be fair, that’s what drew me in, too. Plus the illustrations by Brett Helquist appealed to me and I love his style.
Rather cleverly, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains thirteen volumes, which may or may not be unlucky depending on how willing you are to invest in the series for the long haul. Myself, I was initially devoted to it but, as the books went on, I became less enthusiastic. Admittedly, the series felt overstretched by the time I got to the halfway point. For me, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, and The Austere Academy were the strongest compared to the series’ back half offerings, which seemed to coast down a slippery slope of cyclical, mediocre storytelling though The Hostile Hospital, for me, was the strongest out of the last six novels.
The final book, The End, was honestly the worst final book in a series I’ve ever read to date and it made me want to heave it across the room after finishing it. In short, not only was it not worth reading in and of itself but it also was not worth reading the previous twelve books to get to it. To keep it spoiler-free, I’ll just say that The End ends – and that’s it. I get that this series was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek depressing but, for me, something has to make up for that. The End most certainly did not accomplish that and made me feel like I had eaten a giant box of mildly tolerable cereal only to discover there was no toy at the bottom. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. But I digress.
Story-wise, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, the chief protagonists, to put it mildly, rarely have a good day. I will admit that even after I became disenchanted with the series, I hung in for the sake of the three leads. I loved Violet, Klaus, and Sunny and I appreciated how they became their own characters with unique personalities and quirks. Violet is the eldest child and possesses an agile, inventive mind, making her the trio’s chief engineer and problem-solver (and I loved how every time she tied her hair back, you knew her awesome brain was going into action!). Klaus is the middle child who loves literature and etymology and is solidly book-smart. Much like Violet’s engineering prowess, Klaus’ skill set enables him to think through problems logically and creatively. Lastly, Sunny starts the series as an infant but ages into a toddler. Her obvious talent is biting but her fighting spirit is also commendable. Aside from liking them as individuals, I also appreciated the siblings’ maturity and realistic dynamic: they don’t always get along but their familial bond and unconditional love for one another overcome all grievances. Overall, I absolutely adored Violet, Klaus, and Sunny and I wished I had equally enjoyed the stories they were placed in. Sadly, this was a case of having three awesome characters housed in thirteen sometimes not-so-awesome stories.
While each novel in the series is relatively short, the plotting and pacing are essentially the same. The three orphans are either placed in a new caretaker’s home or strike out on their own to escape Count Olaf and uncover the mystery behind their parents’ deaths. In time, they run across at least one or two other characters, usually adults, who initially seem sympathetic towards the orphans’ plight. But in the end, such persons are discovered to be in league with Count Olaf, under duress from County Olaf, or not very helpful. Eventually, Olaf and his nefarious pals close in and their dastardly deeds go persistently unawares by other adults in the story. Only Violet, Klaus, and Sunny seem to have any clue to look past his schemes. This can make for many frustrated moments as the Baudelaires rarely receive justice for their mistreatment, hence my first criticism of the series.
Just the first, mind you – there are a few more.
I have nothing against books for children or young adults that don’t paint a sunny picture of the world. But there has to be something to justify a character’s misfortunes, something for them to strive for and eventually gain. In the Baudelaires’ case, they suffer abuse and psychological torture from Count Olaf and his evil theater troupe; so, by all rights, they deserve justice. Instead, the books allow Olaf to repeatedly escape, and it isn’t until The End that he gets what is coming to him but not in the way I was hoping. Thus, the underlying philosophy young readers are subjected to here is that life is always unfair and dreadful. Granted, life isn’t always perfect or fair but it’s not the extreme picture the series paints either. Therefore, by the end of it all, I was frustrated that Violet, Klaus, and Sunny rarely got any long-lived reprieves. I was equally annoyed over how it seemed like most of the adult characters were complete dunderheads when it came to Olaf’s schemes. Usually it wasn’t until the last minute the grownup good guys and gals finally realized what’s going on, but Olaf always fled before he could be stopped. This pattern occurred in nearly every book save for the last few and, by that time, it was beyond infuriating.
My other complaint is how far Count Olaf goes to get what he wants. While he makes for a frightening bad guy, he’s an overly-vile villain without any good reason as to why he’s bad other than there being some history between him and the Baudelaires. Personally, I love a complex villain, someone who might truly be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” but who also has some positive traits (even if those are used in negative ways), does good he or she doesn’t intend, and/or a sympathetic thread so the villain is fleshed out as a person, not merely a fill-in for an empty villain slot. Olaf has a small sympathy factor rooted in his past that counts as a spoiler; however, for the most part he is twisted and disturbed without a clear reason why other than that’s just how he is, and some of his actions were surprising to find in a series for younger readers. Granted, there are books for the same age range that are dark (Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a good example), but these may still depict happy endings where the villains get what they deserve. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Olaf’s torments are rarely avenged as he engages in numerous acts of neglect, abuse, cruelty, murder, deceit, manipulation, greed, attempted physical mutilation, and implied incest, the last two of which involve Violet with whom he seems to harbor a strange fascination.
Again, I stress the word implied. But I still dislike books that feel like they have to go there in any way, shape, or form.
This matter of latent incest crops up in The Bad Beginning where Olaf attempts to marry Violet to gain access to the orphans’ fortune. While this sham marriage is driven purely out of greed, some of the ways he speaks to and treats Violet (such as modest touching and indicating that after the “ceremony” he wishes to enjoy his wedding night) stick a large toe over the line of being inappropriate. While I didn’t think anything incestuous was actually going on (because I don’t think Violet would have stood for it), I was uncomfortable with these scenes. Thankfully, Olaf doesn’t pull similar stunts in the rest of the books, but that by no means softens the other sins he commits. I would even go so far as to caution readers that if you’re sensitive to scenes or circumstances involving physical, emotional, and/or psychological abuse/neglect, especially towards children, then this series might not be for you. There is a great deal of abuse/neglect in all thirteen books that the poor Baudelaire’s endure though it’s not on every page. To their credit, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny strive to persevere and rise above their circumstances, but all too often they are beaten back down in defeat.
My last complaint deals with the novels’ structure, which is episodic to the point of simplistic predictability. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it might appeal to the chief middle grade audience for whom these books are intended. But to sustain the same escape-entrapment-escape-entrapment pattern throughout all thirteen novels does wax tiresome. Writing-wise, the series flows by at a decent pace thanks to its books’ relatively small sizes, excluding some of the final novels. One aspect of the narrative I found myself skimming over though is when the narrator or another character gave the definition of a word younger readers probably wouldn’t know. (For example: “The word ‘standoffish’ is a wonderful one….It means ‘reluctant to associate with others,’ and it might describe somebody who, during a party, would stand in a corner and not talk to anyone.”) Granted, this is a great tool with which to teach kids vocabulary, but for adults it’s a chance to skim the page (unless, of course, you’re in the market to pick up some new vocab, too!).
All of this isn’t to say this is a terrible, unreadable series as it can be strangely charming and darkly humorous at times. The three young leads are incredibly intelligent and admirable, especially considering the horrible treatment they endure and the dreadful circumstances they find themselves in. However, if I can sum up my chief complaint with this series it would be this: A Series of Unfortunate Events paints the world as a cold, uncaring place and depicts adults as dimwitted, incompetent, unhelpful, or malicious. Again, not all stories need to be full of light-hearted whimsy, but I believe there’s a fine line between depicting realistic truths and offering harsh, stark realism. Regarding A Series of Unfortunate Events, it puts both feet over the latter line, presenting a dismal world populated by apathetic, unhelpful, or nefarious people. This was what frustrated me the most because, as a reader, I wanted the story’s heroes to win and know there is still light, goodness, and kindness in the world. But just when the series starts to present such truths, it whips them right out from under you akin to pulling a rug out from under your feet.
This article from Speculative Faith regarding A Series of Unfortunate Events says it best:
Stories that are at their core cynical about the world present two different visions. The first is a vision of a world without heroes. The second is a vision of a world that doesn’t deserve heroes. These visions may easily be combined and sometimes are, but each can and does go alone, too. Together or alone, they weave an inescapable cynicism into the fabric of their stories. [Regarding ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’] [o]nce doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of individuals, the Baudelaires are now doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of institutions. Every pillar of society crumbles when the children try to lean on it: the school, the law, the government, the free press.
It’s not that the institutions are broken. It’s that people are so stupid and savage [and even as a series] devoted to satire and absurdity, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ went too far, made too many people too stupid, too many people wicked, too many institutions worthless. […] When stories take us into such worlds, the stay is unpleasant. I think authors forget what a demoralizing effect the bleakness of their worlds has over their stories. Even genuine heroes can’t always counterbalance it. Curiously enough, the cynicism of the worthless-world stories doesn’t always seem intended. In these stories, the heroes are truly heroic and a sense of morality prevails. But it’s not enough to have heroes who save the world. We need a world worth saving, too.
Hence, as the world in this series isn’t worth saving, and even less so the characters (aside from Violet, Klaus, and Sunny), it’s hard to emotionally connect with any of the stories, especially as they progress. In the end, they present a collective, cyclical dismal tale that, ultimately, can never be redeemed.
Language – A few minor, PG-style profanities throughout the series (chiefly uttered by adults) but nothing pervasive.
Violence – Olaf and his henchmen often, but not perpetually, inflict psychological, emotional, and physical harm on one or more of the orphans. There is nothing graphic in terms of blood, gore, or outright torture, but the nature of Olaf’s abuse might upset sensitive readers, especially as some instances involve him putting Violet, Klaus, and/or Sunny in life-threatening situations, from threatening to drop one sibling from a great height to causing another character to suffer a near-fatal allergic reaction. Likewise, other characters, usually the nicer grownups, are not immune to his callous ways as such people are often killed off in an attempt for Olaf to keep the orphans in his clutches. Characters are also put in perilous situations though these are more suspenseful as opposed to violent.
Sexual Material – None, save for Olaf’s attempt at a sham marriage to Violet, which includes modest, nonsexual touching and leads to a comment by Olaf regarding the wedding night. While it will go over the heads of young readers, adults will be able to read between the lines and know exactly what he’s referring to. (Nothing happens between Olaf and Violet, of course, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.) One of the members of Olaf’s troupe is androgynous but nothing is made regarding the character’s actual sexual orientation. Similarly, Olaf disguises himself as a woman in one of the books, but the purpose is just to hide his true identity so he can’t be recognized, not to be transgender.
Overall, A Series of Unfortunate Events starts off with an interesting, albeit dismal, premise and features a trio of strong, smart, noble protagonists who are easy to cheer for. Furthermore, the illustrations are tastefully done and the hardcover editions of the books are eye-catching. But while the episodic plotting works in the earlier books, it waxes predictable later on. The final novel is easily the most disappointing of the lot as many of the series’ mysteries are still left unsolved. Thus, if you’re looking for some reads with which to pass the time, these books are decent speedy picks and will probably satisfy. But due to their depictions of abuse and focus on depressing circumstances, they’re not for everyone. Hence, I will impart an advisory: discretion and serious consideration need to be employed if deciding to give these books to a child (or to anyone) who is prone to depression or may have experienced or witnessed abuse or neglect as such tones and themes are employed and depicted in all thirteen novels. Thus, A Series of Unfortunate Events might not be everyone’s cup of reading tea.