Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020
Rating: 4 (of 5) stars
The Austere Academy
It is in the fifth book of this series where there is a variation from the pattern of previous books. The Austere Academy finds the Baudelaire orphans heading off to boarding school rather than to a new guardian. The apparently prestigious school is run by an unpleasant Vice Principal and with an enormous set of ridiculous rules. The two older Baudelaires are assigned to classes, but Sunny being too young is to become a secretary. This book really is mostly a collection of oddities: teachers that do not make sense, poor violin playing, and an orphan shack infested with crabs. Olaf arrives, of course, but even his plot to capture the orphans is a bit nonsensical: requiring them to run all night long in hopes of making them too tired to pass their courses.
Among the oddities, we are introduced to a handful of new characters that will continue into future books. The obnoxious Carmelita Spats, a bully who becomes the messenger of Count Olaf, has a small role here, but reoccurs in later books. On a more pleasant note, we finally have a bit of positivity for the orphans in the form of friends: two of the Quagmire triplets. The Baudelaires and the Quagmires find that they have quite a bit in common, both coming from rich families and having been orphaned after their parents were killed in a fire. The children work together to begin solving the mystery around “V.F.D.” – a recurring acronym that they believe to be linked to the mystery of their parents’ deaths. In the end, the children escape Count Olaf again, but the Quagmires are not so lucky. Although not quite a cliffhanger, the book ends with the Quagmires kidnapped by Olaf, kicking off a new plot line, as the Baudelaires deal with their miseries while simultaneously searching for their friends and seeking clues to the mystery of V.F.D.
The Ersatz Elevator
After the drama at the boarding school, the orphans move on their way to a new pair of guardians: Jerome and Esme Squalor. Esme is the sixth most important financial advisor in the city, and is overly concerned with what is “in” – which becomes a theme for the book. Luckily for the Baudelaire’s, orphans are in. While Jerome takes an interest in the children, Esme is much more concerned with her own affairs. There is a ton going on in this book: another Count Olaf plot, an effort to rescue the Quagmires, and more clues related to V.F.D. There is also a first here for the series, when the children tell an adult about Count Olaf’s disguise and plot, and are believed. Unfortunately, this is because they reveal their discoveries to Esme Squalor, who has secretly been working with Count Olaf all along. In the end, Esme leaves to join Count Olaf who is still at large with the captive Quagmires, and the orphans are left with another flawed guardian: Jerome Squalor, who despite good intentions feels that the orphans need to forget about the idea of rescuing their friends.
The characters and events in this book also give us a bit more insight into the narrator. Throughout the series we get glimpses of the life of the narrator, which become increasingly overt. Here, we see some additional connections with names and characters, allowing the reader to piece together the mystery of V.F.D. with information unknown to the children.
A final note on this book is that I finished part of this in a new format for me: an audiobook. I decided to try out the audio after I realized that I was behind in the series, and that I was going to be spending a large amount of time driving over the next few days. What a treat this turned out to be! The official audiobook is narrated by Tim Curry, who does a fabulous job at bringing the story to life. His voice is a perfect fit for the style of the story, and he is appropriately creative in giving voice to the dialogue of each character.
The Vile Village
In book seven, we get another slight variation on the guardian plot. Rather than being turned over to a single guardian, the orphans are taken in by an entire village. After all, it does take a village to raise a child, right? The children choose from a list of villages that are willing to take them, in hopes that the village V.F.D. relates to the mystery they have been trying to solve. Unfortunately for the children, the Village of Fowl Devotees is not only the incorrect V.F.D., it is a run by a council who is overly devoted to nonsensical rules and believes that the prime method of raising children is to make them complete chores. The children find themselves in the care of Hector, the town handyman, who turns out to be an amiable companion. He does not prescribe to the village’s rules, but is also afraid to stand up to anyone on the council. It appears briefly that the children may have found a way to escape their unpleasant lives: Hector is working on a self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and the children have found clues that allude to the Quagmires being hidden nearby.
The children hope to rescue the Quagmires and then escape with Hector in his mobile home. An unexpected twist occurs when the children hear that Count Olaf has been captured in the village, and will be imprisoned. In a reversal on the usual events, the children inform the village that the person they have captured is not Count Olaf, but are not believed. In an increasingly complicated turn of events, the captured person, Jaques Snicket, is killed, and the children are falsely accused of his murder. The story wraps up with quite a slew of exciting happenings, that set the stage for the remainder of the series: Count Olaf as a fake detective, a prison break, the daring rescue of the Quagmires, and additional mishaps that cause the Baudelaires to be separated from their friends again, leaving the village running for their lives as fugitives.
The Hostile Hospital
The second half of the series finds the Baudelaires venturing out on their own; after a series of misunderstandings has them fleeing as accused murderers. They attempt to contact Mr. Poe for help, but cannot reach him. The orphans stumble upon another incorrect V.F.D.—the Volunteers Fighting Disease—which leads them to Heimlich Hospital and its Library of Records. The orphans use their opportunity of volunteering that the hospital to search for clues about the correct V.F.D., leading them to engage in some of their own sneaky behaviors. While the orphans are wondering about the consequences of treacherous behaviors with good intentions, Count Olaf launches the next step in his scheme, which leads him to the same Library of Records in search of the “Snicket File.”
The orphans find themselves trapped in the Library of Records with Esme Squalor as she searches for the file, destroying much of the library and capturing Violet in the process. Klaus and Sunny find themselves needing to form a plan of their own to save their sister from Count Olaf, using some clever research along with some disguises and tricks they have picked up from Olaf himself. While the orphans are able to escape, they find themselves with an increasing list of false accusations reported in the newspaper and nowhere to go. The see Count Olaf about to leave the scene of the now burning hospital, and decide their best option is to stowaway in his car: at least this way they will be able to keep track of what he is up to.
The Carnivorous Carnival
While I was personally less excited about this particular addition to the series than others, it does provide an ideal setting for a major turning point in the series. The Baudelaires follow Count Olaf to the Caligari Carnival, where he is meeting up with the fortuneteller Madame Lulu. The orphans disguise themselves as freaks in order to join the carnival freak show and find out more about what is going on. Through their investigation, the children discover that Madame Lulu is a fake—she has a mechanical device to produce thunder and lightning when she is asked a question, using this as a distraction to reference her research and provide answers. She has a strict policy of giving everyone what they want, which causes her to dwell in morally ambiguous territory. She is able to give the children some true information about the V.F.D. they have been looking for, telling them of a schism that has caused the organization to fragment into two factions: volunteers and villains. She agrees to help the orphans, but this agreement puts her at odds with her policy of giving everyone what they want: she will have to deny Count Olaf the information he wants.
There are a few interesting themes floating around in this one, the first being the presence of the freaks. To be honest, they are not very “freakish” at all: a hunchback, a contortionist, and a man who is ambidextrous. However, they are all so focused on their slight differences that they become magnified and are treated poorly because of it. This book also places stronger emphasis on some themes from earlier books: are villainous actions justified when you have noble intentions? Up to this point, the orphans have been portrayed villainously in the newspaper based on misunderstandings and accidents. Here, they begin to intentionally engage in some questionable behaviors. After a close call with a pit of lions, the orphans and other freaks agree to join up with Count Olaf’s troupe. They help him set the fire to burn the carnival to the ground, and then leave with the freak caravan tied to the back of Olaf’s car. It is here, with Violet and Klaus in the freak caravan, and Sunny in the car with Olaf and the other henchman, we make the discovery that leads to the series’ first cliffhanger: Madame Lulu was unable to keep her promise to the Baudelaires. She revealed their true identities to Olaf, who now has Sunny in his clutches, and cuts loose the freak caravan to send the others tumbling down the side of a mountain.