The Bad Beginning (1999) by Lemony Snicket
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”
The Baudelaire children have recently become a destitute bunch, a term which here means they’ve lost their beloved parents, home, and everything they own. On a particularly cloudy day by the seaside teen Violet Baudelaire, her younger brother Klaus, and sister Sunny receive devastating news; Their parents and family home have perished in a massive fire leaving the children orphaned and alone.
Violet is the oldest of the Baudelaire children, being fourteen. She has a real knack for inventing and building strange devices and is always seeking to broaden her knowledge and skill on mechanical engineering. Klaus, the only boy of the Baudelaire children, is a little over twelve and loves to read. He’s quite intelligent for his age having read a vast selection of books on various subjects from the enormous library of the Baudelaire Estate. The youngest of the Baudelaire children, Sunny, is a toddler who speaks in gibberish and has quite the fondness for biting things. She is very small for her age, being scarcely larger than a boot.
Mr. Poe, a man who works for the bank, is the executor of the Baudelaire Estate and takes the children in whilst searching for a suitable permanent guardian for them. This leads to an introduction to the main villain of the series: the scheming and dastardly Count Olaf who, in relation to the Baudelaire children, is either a third cousin four times removed, or a fourth cousin three times removed. The children are sent to live with Count Olaf in his miserable abode where they share a dainty little room with a single bed and are fed sad porridge each morning. Olaf is a wicked man. With a looming, stringy physique, dark shiny eyes, and singular monobrow he lurks within the pages of the novel and is a right despicable sort. He is out to get the Baudelaire’s inheritance which will be available to the children once Violet is of age and hatches a grand and twisted plan to snatch it from them. Assisting him in his schemes is the curious cast of his acting troupe, which act as his cronies, among which includes a man with hooks for hands, a pair of actresses caked in a white powder makeup, and a very strange looking person whom the children can’t quite describe.
The children must work together as they are forced into a battle of wits under the adoption of Count Olaf and must thwart his diabolical schemes for their inheritance, find some way to expose his plans, and escape from his greedy clutches for good.
Book the First in the thirteen-part Series of Unfortunate Events series is a strong and memorable introduction to the lives of the Baudelaire children as well as the quirky and darkly charming writing style of author Lemony Snicket which we often get a glimpse of through the narration. It chronicles the beginning of the Baudelaire children’s story, their subsequent stay with Count Olaf, and a grand scheme of his involving threats of bodily harm to the children and Nuptial Law.
Underneath its light-hearted tone and its usage of dramatic irony is a very dark and sombre premise, (I won’t spoil anything here), for a children’s book that today’s more sensitive audience would most likely deem inappropriate and while I would somewhat agree in the case of very small children, I don’t think it’s worse than reading any number of the Shakespearean tragedies.
The Bad Beginning, despite its name, provides a solid foundation for the series and stands out as a memorable novel in and of itself, if a bit on the short side. After finishing the novel I instantly wanted to move onto the next book in the series and continue the unfortunate tale of the Baudelaire orphans.
If you never got the chance to read this novel back in the day or if you are a fan of the 2004 movie starring Jim Carrey, or the joke of a Netflix series, I can definitely recommend checking the novel out.
~Giuseppe Gillespie April 2022
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