When I requested this book on NetGalley, I did understand it was an adult book, but of course my love for A Series of Unfortunate Events guided my decision. After all, years ago I stood in line for hours to get Lemony Snicket’s autograph, err, I mean, I did it with my friend, so her young son could meet him… yeah, that’s right.
In any case, this book started out fun, and seemingly light-hearted. As a parent of an almost 14-year-old, I laughed at Gwen’s awkward and increasingly desperate attempts at independence. Her parents, on the other hand, did not seem as inspired. The shrew mother and the self-centered father engaged me at first with humor, but rapidly deteriorated into creepy, and, with some weird and awkward scenes, into strange and inappropriate. I will concede that maybe that’s just me, and suburbia has taken whatever edge I once had (if any), off, and I am ill-equipped to handle these kinds of things. But I’m not so sure. Plus, I am a fan of the weird and often inappropriate.
For me, part of the charm in Daniel Handler’s writing has been to make me feel like I am in the know. His asides from the series, “a word which here means” were a wink or a nudge to the reader, and I was proud of myself when I was in on the joke. Here, he uses a similar device, “at this point in American history” and, at first, I get the same sort of feeling, a sly line often delivered to mean just the opposite of what’s being said. As the story goes on, however, I feel like something gives, and I am left unsure if the line is delivered seriously or for a laugh, and if, in some way, I am the butt of that joke. Given the fallout from his appearance at the National Book Awards, the comments about race seemed to be testing the boundaries of what is acceptable, and honestly, made me embarrassed for Handler.
The real problem I had with this book is that I was completely drawn into the story by the terrific writing and many interesting characters. But at about the halfway point, Handler’s story jumped the shark and the gratuitous violence and increasingly disturbing plot were shocking to me, which kind of pissed me off. I thought I was reading Cheever, and I ended up with some bizarre hack ‘em up movie of the week. In the end, I still wasn’t sure if he was kidding, and I almost wouldn’t have been surprised if Gwen and her parents woke up in their overpriced condo to find that yes, it was all just a very bad dream. In fact, I might have preferred that.