The final, and 13th, book in A Series of Unfortunate Events is fittingly titled The End. It has taken me about a month to finish the entire series and I confess by this book some of the story’s tics had worn me down a bit. I was no longer entertained by the constant definitions of words and phrases for humorous effect. The Baudelaire orphans, I felt, had become predictable and even a little boring. I enjoyed the villain Count Olaf more than the main characters. He seemed to be the only one with personality, humor, and vibrancy.
In this book the Baudelaires and Olaf wash up on an isolated island. The villagers there are led by Ishmael, whose main goal is to keep everyone safe. They wear plain robes and eat the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Any of the interesting or useful items that wash up on shore are taken to the arboretum at the other side of the island, lest they upset the balance Ishmael has created.
For the first half of the book, I confess I was bored, except for when Olaf was in a scene. There were many mysteries and questions to resolve in this last book, so I was surprised how slow going it was. But then, something happened in the middle of the book. There was more dramatic action, but that wasn’t what grabbed me. Hadler, the author writing under the name Lemony Snicket (who is a character in his own right in the series), begins to weave in something deeper. As the story unfolds (or peels back, like thin layers of an onion, as Snicket describes the story), the deeper questions about life and loss start to come to the surface. The way stories don’t really begin and end, but simply start and finish for us while the story of the world goes on. How we all experience unfortunate events, how we each have our own stories, and how some mysteries stay mysteries and are never resolved in our lifetimes.
My 18 year old brother died when I was 20 years old. I tend to be drawn to stories about death and loss, but I didn’t expect this young adult series to tap this private part of myself. Even all these years later, the sadness and pain of his death can come back to me as if it was fresh. Maybe it’s listening to music my brother loved or looking at his old handwritten physics papers that brings him back. But more often, it’s something that’s inside of me, something I want to share with him or remember together. When my brother died, I thought I would never get over it. And here’s the thing: I never did. He and his memory have become a part of who I am. And that memory contains his full humanity in all its facets. His complexity, and even the complicated nature of my grief, is truer than any deification of his life. Some things will always be a mystery to me about my brother. He took his own life, without even a note to help me and my family understand why. I will never know exactly why. Maybe this is heavy for a book review. But I wanted to explain why I cried like a baby at the end of this book—the end of this series—because through all the humor, adventures, outlandish characters, and surprises, the story was about survival, love and loss. It was about our own complexities, both the good and the difficult. Handler writes about all of this in such a wise, nuanced way that I think adults, as well as young people, will find something deep if they read through the whole series. The End was perfect. Beautiful and spacious, sad and hopeful. Not hope as a fantasy of perfection, but rooted in the messy, lovely, and frightening life we all have before us.