Book Reviews

Review: The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), by Lemony Snicket

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The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1)

By: Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

Published: September 30, 1999

The Rundown: The three Baudelaire children are torn from their idyllic family life when their parents perish— in this sentence, “perish” means “are killed horribly”— in a house fire.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to live with an obscure relative named Count Olaf, a villainous boor who is after their fortune.  Can the children prevail over Olaf in a harsh adult world that seems determined to ignore their suffering?

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: This cover does a great job of encapsulating the main struggle of the series.  The main antagonist, Count Olaf, is standing in the doorway of his decrepit mansion, looking down on the three orphans who have arrived on his doorstep.  Olaf’s arched fingers indicate his calculating nature, and the children’s miserable expressions suggest that he is the cause of their misfortunes.  Furthermore, Olaf is in a position of power (inside his house) while the children are in a position of weakness (they are on his doorstep, asking to be let in).

The Good Guys: This story has two protagonists, the siblings Violet and Klaus Baudelaire.  Violet, age fourteen, is a budding inventor.  Klaus, age twelve, likes to read books.  Both children are distraught by the death of their parents, the loss of their home, and their abuse at the hands of their new guardian.  When the adults in their lives ignore their plight, they take matters into their own hands, foiling Olaf’s evil plans with their respective skills.

And the Bad Guy: Count Olaf is the legal guardian of the Baudelaire children, and it is clear that he is after their fortune.  He is less intelligent than he is lucky, in that the system is designed to operate in his favor because he is an adult.  His dilapidated mansion is covered with engravings and paintings of eyes, which make the children feel as if he is always watching them.  Oh, and he has an evil theatrical troupe.

Pasta Puttanesca: If you’ve read A Series of Unfortunate Events, you will notice that Snicket is very good at foreshadowing.  The eyes all over Olaf’s mansion foreshadow his role as the main antagonist of the novels, constantly watching the children in his quest to steal their fortune.  The fact that his symbol is an eye also suggests the Illuminati.  Could a secret society possibly be involved?  Snicket also successfully foreshadows plot points within the novel.  For example, Violet’s right-handedness is mentioned in the first chapter, and it ends up playing a key role in resolving the novel’s central conflict.

Count Olaf’s Mansion: At first, I found Snicket’s habit of defining words to be charming.  However, by the book’s halfway mark, I was very annoyed.  The momentum of key scenes is brought to a screeching halt every time there is a new definition.  It’s completely unnecessary: even if the reader were unfamiliar with the word, they could easily figure out the meaning from context.  That said, Snicket does have some fun with this device.  Whenever a character defines a word for another character, they will reply in an annoyed tone, “I know what it means.”  Interestingly, the main conflict is brought about when the executor of the Baudelaire estate misreads the contents of the parents’ will.  It states that the children are to be raised by their “closest living relative.”  The executor interprets this to mean “physically closest,” not “genetically closest.”  As a result, the orphans are sent to Count Olaf instead of a sane person.

Does it Represent…

Women: Violet Baudelaire, one of the two protagonists, is a skilled inventor.  She is both clever and fearless, at one point designing a grappling hook and using it to scale a tower, knowing that if her invention fails, she will plummet to her death.  She has an infant sister, named Sunny, who cannot speak but has four very sharp teeth.  Sunny plays the role of damsel in distress, but it’s forgivable, because she’s a baby.  There’s also Olaf’s neighbor, the successful Justice Strauss.  Her home is a refuge for the Baudelaire orphans, and her voluminous library helps them figure out Olaf’s nefarious plan.  Nevertheless, despite Justice Strauss’s intelligence, she is as easily duped by Olaf as the other adult characters.

People of Color: Nope.

LGBT People: Nada.

The Disabled: One of Olaf’s henchmen is missing both hands and wears hooks.  However, this is clearly meant to make him sinister and threatening.  The children imagine him tearing into them with his hooks.  In fact, Olaf has to specifically tell him not to do this until after he gets his hands on the Baudelaire fortune.

Memorable Quote: “The way sadness works is one of the strange riddles of the world.  If you are stricken with a great sadness, you may feel as if you have been set aflame, not only because of the enormous pain, but also because your sadness may spread over your life, like smoke from an enormous fire.  You might find it difficult to see anything but your own sadness, the way smoke can cover a landscape so that all anyone can see is black.  You may find that if someone pours water all over you, you are damp and distracted, but not cured of your sadness, the way a fire department can douse a fire but never recover what has been burnt down.”

Recommended For: People who like dry humor and watching horrible things happen to helpless children.  An adult hits a young boy in the face!

My Rating: 4/5 stars

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), by Lemony Snicket

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