The Story: A Series of Unfortunate Events 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) and follows the dreadful misadventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Violet is the eldest and is a brainy, resourceful girl but manages not to act like a know-it-all. Klaus is also smart but more in a book-smarts kind of way. Lastly, there’s Sunny, the baby, whose most distinguishing feature is her budding teeth. These three children are dealt a horrible blow when 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 all is the villainous Count Olaf, who stops at nothing to get his clutches on the Baudelaire fortune.
I have to give this independent readers’ series some credit for using reverse psychology in its marketing, which goes a little something like this: these books are so full of misery, 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 sucked me in, too, Plus the illustrations by Brett Helquist appealed to me and I love his style, which is very fluid and easily recognizable.
But back to the books. While thirteen is a purposeful numeric pun, the series runs a bit long and felt overstretched by the time I got to The Ersatz Elevator. Personally, books one through six were strong with The Hostile Hospital being the strongest in the series’ back half.
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny really have a hard time of it and the third person narrator makes it no secret that these children rarely have a good day. 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 (early in the series) or strike out on their own to escape Count Olaf and uncover the mystery behind their parents’ deaths. Eventually, Olaf and his nefarious pals close in and their dastardly deeds go unawares by the other adults in the story. Only the three orphans seem to have any clue to look past his schemes. This can make for some frustrated moments since 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.
First, 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 finally gets what is coming to him but not in the way I was hoping. Thus, what young readers are subjected to is that life is always unfair and always dreadful. Life isn’t perfect or always fair but it’s not the other extreme either. Therefore, by the end of the series, 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. It isn’t until the last minute the grownup good guys and gals finally realize what’s going on but Olaf has fled before he can be stopped. This pattern occurs in nearly every book save for the last few and, by that time, it’s become a bit trite.
My other complaint is how far Count Olaf goes to get what he wants. His character is twisted and disturbed, which somewhat surprised me to find in a series for younger readers. Granted, there are books in the same age bracket that are dark (Coraline, anyone?), but these still depict happy endings where the villains get what they deserve. In A Series of Unfortunate Events however, Olaf’s techniques of torment are rarely avenged. He engages in acts of neglect, abuse, murder, deceit, manipulation, greed, attempted physical mutilation (he tries to perform a craniotomy on Violet), and even (as some reviewers have implied) incest.
Again, I stress the word implied.
In The Bad Beginning, 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 creepiness. To kids, this probably won’t mean much, but while I didn’t think anything incestuous was going on, I was uncomfortable with these scenes. Thankfully, Olaf doesn’t try to pull similar stunts in the rest of the books but that by no means softens the other sins he commits.
My last complaint deals with the novels’ structure, which is episodic. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and might appeal to the chief audience these books are for. But to sustain the same escape-ensnarement-escape-entrapment pattern does get tiresome. On a positive note, the main characters (and, yes, even Olaf) are developed well though they do borrow from literary tropes. Violet is the inventor, Klaus the book worm, Sunny the helpless baby, and Olaf the overly-vile villain (without any good reason why he’s bad). Naturally, the three orphans are the most developed and I appreciated their realistic dynamic – they don’t hate each other but don’t always get along though their love overcomes all wrongs. They act mature for their age and, for that, they deserve admiration.
Writing-wise, all of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events flow at a decent pace considering their relatively small size (excluding some of the final novels) and principle audience. One aspect of the narrative I found myself skimming over is when the narrator (or another character) gives 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 literary device for kids and it’s a good tool to teach 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).
Language – A few minor, PG-style profanities throughout the series (chiefly uttered by adult characters) but nothing pervasive.
Violence – Olaf and his henchmen inflict psychological, emotional, and often physical harm on one or more of the orphans. There is nothing graphic in terms of blood or gore, but the nature of Olaf’s abuse might upset more sensitive readers. Characters are also put in perilous situations though these are more life-threatening and suspenseful as opposed to being openly 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 and, while it will go over the heads of young readers, it will be creepy to adults who can read between the lines. (Nothing happens between Olaf and Violet, of course.) 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 to hide his true identity, not to be cross-gender.
Overall, A Series of Unfortunate Events starts off with an interesting (albeit dismal) premise and, to its credit, it has a strong trio of protagonists that are easy to cheer for and support. Likewise, the plotting works in the early books but grows predictable later on. The final novel is easily the most disappointing as many of the series’ mysteries are still left unsolved. On a positive note, the illustrations are gorgeously done and the hardcover editions of the books nicely created. Reading-wise, if you’re looking for some quick reads to pass the time, these books are decent. But based on some of their depictions of abuse and focus on depressing events and circumstances, they’re not for everyone. While I will never insist who should or should not read certain books, I will impart an advisory here that serious discretion needs to be employed if deciding to give these books to a child who is easily frightened, prone to depression, or may have come from or witnessed abuse or neglect. For anyone over age 12, they’re minor though disturbing concerns, but to children under age 12, some consideration needs to be given.