First: I’m listening to this as read by Tim Curry, which is nothing but awesome. However: If you’re doing the same, you might want to grab a copy from the library long enough to look at the last several pages. Snicket includes no less than six “To My Kind Editor” letters, and Curry doesn’t read them. Which is not his fault, because nothing is his fault, because Tim Curry is a rock god and if you don’t understand that you need to leave my house right now.
The reason Curry doesn’t read these letters is because he can’t. No, he didn’t suddenly contract illiteracy after finishing the main text. He can’t read these letters aloud because he can’t do them justice in an audible-book format. The letters aren’t complete. They’re torn fragments of letters typed on “Hotel Denouement” letterhead, and they’re torn from top to bottom, with only the left halves surviving. And “half” is too generous a term for the last one. But they’re fun to puzzle over. So be sure to check these fragments out.
Let me again express my shock at how the “Unfortunate Events” books not only defy the general fate of sequels (hint: suckage), but actually improve as the series goes on. The characters deepen. The children grapple with moral as well as physical perils. And the literary references become more subtle and complex.
I won’t say much about the plot here because first of all, it’s undoubtedly been expertly summarized elsewhere; second, if you’re familiar with the series you don’t need me to, and if you’re not, you should start with the first book, not the 11th; and third, I still have a bad headache from this lousy month-long cold, and summarizing sounds suspiciously like work. Work that involves my brain, which is in my head, which hurts.
Instead, I’d like to mention something I was deeply grateful to find in this book.
My niece died when I was a teenager and she was only a few months old. I don’t think I can be described as having come to terms with that, because I don’t even know what that would mean. I’ve gotten on with my life, of course, but it’s always a shock that someone so small could cast so big a shadow.
One thing I’ve often thought about is that a too-early death – whether it’s of an infant, a teen, the mother of young children, or the father of no one at all – robs its victim of two lives. The first is the nebulous, hypothetical, artificially bright life they would have had: the future they’ve been deprived of, the work and love they might have engaged in.
The second, though, is the life they already had. A chunk of their identity almost always drops away. That piece of their self is every bit as true and important as every other aspect of their personality, but it’s buried first and deepest.
I’m talking about their flaws. We are so reluctant to allow our dead to be their own imperfect selves. It’s too painful – and to be fair, it feels too cruel – to acknowledge that the lost loved one was, say, sometimes irritable and occasionally (or often) unkind, or had a habit of grabbing the first and the best for themselves.
My niece didn’t have time to be anything but an infant, of course. But I’ve found myself trying to acknowledge her humanity by wondering if she would have been a bratty, fashion-conscious teenager who rolled her eyes at my lame apparel. Or maybe she would have been polite enough not to say that the things I enjoy – writing, reading, baking all day – would have been distinctly boring to her. We might have gone through some thorny patches, as her mother and I certainly have.
She should have had the chance to be an ordinary human being, is what I’m saying. She should have had a life. And in the course of that life, it’s pretty much guaranteed that she would have been bitchy sometimes. Or rude. Mean to people now and then. Maybe stupid enough to text and drive (most Americans are, these days). As well as beautiful (her parents are gorgeous) and intelligent (her mother’s brilliant) and probably artistic (I’m the only one she’s related to who epically fails in that department).
She doesn’t get to be a whole person any more. She lost out on the years she should have had; and because she died far too young, she’s been elected to sainthood. Many people have. And that isn’t fair to anyone.
This kind of thought is why this passage from The Grim Grotto means a lot to me:
“Everyone yells, of course, from time to time, but the Baudelaire children did not like to think about their parents yelling, particularly now that they were no longer around to apologize or explain themselves. It is often difficult to admit that someone you love is not perfect, or to consider aspects of a person that are less than admirable. To the Baudelaires it felt almost as if they had drawn a line after their parents died – a secret line in their memories, separating all the wonderful things about the Baudelaire parents from the things that perhaps were not quite so wonderful. Since the fire, whenever they thought of their parents, the Baudelaires never stepped over this secret line, preferring to ponder the best moments the family had together rather than any of the times when they had fought, or been unfair or selfish. But now, suddenly, in the gloom of the Gorgonian Grotto, the siblings had stumbled across that line and found thelseves thinking of that angry afternoon in the library, and in moments other angry afternoons and evenings had occurred to them until their brains were lousy with memories of all stripes, a phrase which here means ‘both good and bad.’ It gave the siblings a queasy feeling to cross this line in their memories, and admit that their parents were sometimes difficult, and it made them feel all the queasier to realize they could not step back, and pretend they had never remembered these less-than-perfect moments, any more than they could step back in time, and once again find themselves safe in the Baudelaire home, before fire and count Olaf had appeared in their lives.”
This is the kind of passage I’d like to wave in someone’s face the next time they ask a brilliant writer if he’s ever going to write a "real" novel – you know, one for grownups. Yeah. ‘Cause writing for children is automatically second-rate and lame.
The Grim Grotto, quite aside from being an action-packed story, also gives a lot of troubling thought to the idea that those we love are not always perfect, anymore than we ourselves are. And it ends on a cliffhanger, so have the next book in the series at the ready well before you finish this one. You’ll want to jump right to it.