Tue
Oct 15 2013 4:00pm

Lemony Snicket’s When Did You See Her Last? as Pleasantly Confounding as Ever

There’s a very real chance that the Lemony Snicket books are too smart for their own good. If you can detect every single literary allusion contained in any of Snicket’s book, but specifically in When Did You See Her Last? then I want to meet you! Smarts and friendship are still the real currency of the Snicket universe and the latest in the new series both continues the mysteries and adventures laid out by the previous volume, while still managing to be its own stand-alone romp.

Light Spoilers ahead.

When I ask adults whether they’ve read any Lemony Snicket, the answer tends to be, “I read the first one, I think,” which mystifies me. If you read the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and you’re not sure if you read the other ones, I feel like you missed something. It’s weird, and I end up sounding like some sort of broken record here (hopefully being played on Ellington Feint’s portable record player!) but why isn’t there more hysteria associated with the release of a new Snicket book? Loving these books as much as I do sometimes makes me feel like I’m in a secret society not dissimilar from the books’ VFD or Inhumane Society.

Chronicling the adventures of the 13-year-old Lemony, the character at one point contemplates his general lot in life by likening himself to a puzzle piece which he has to set aside for a moment in order to figure out where he fits in. I feel like the location where Daniel Handler stands in the contemporary literary landscape is similar. His writing is starting to define a larger puzzle which will comprise the 21st century lit canon, but we’re just not sure how he fits in, yet. Whereas a lot of novels for children are derivative of other children’s lit, while maintaining originality, Lemony Snicket books are original from the get-go and then derivative or homage-ridden seemingly, for fun. By the way, “derivative” is a word here meaning “people notice it might be like other books they also think are great.”

So, what’s going on in When Did You See Her Last? Well, if you read Who Could that Be at this Hour?, the previous volume in All The Wrong Questions, you’d know Lemony Snicket was hanging out in a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea where he is trying to solve several mysteries at once. The nearest to his heart is clearly the elusiveness of the villain Hangfire, who is holding Ellington Feint’s father hostage for nefarious purposes. Handler renders Lemony’s crush on Ellington Feint in a way both touching and not at all corny. His affection for Ellington isn’t the driving force behind everything he does, but it does cause Snicket to make major decisions which may or may not betray his whole purpose in Stain’d-By-The-Sea. In one scene, Lemony grapples with the decision to keep this appointment with Ellington, despite her tendency for deceit and betrayal.

You don’t have to meet her. She’s a liar and a thief. She’s desperate. She’s trouble. She stole from you. Nobody knows what you promised. You could keep it to yourself. But you can tell yourself anything. A wildcat is just one of the wonders of nature, and it’s not going to give you nightmares.

Many analogies in the Lemony Snicket books might seem apropos of nothing, and yet it’s in these slightly manic assertions that Handler manages to keep readers on their toes. A constant inversion or challenging of children’s book clichés is one of the author’s favorite tricks, one which he sports in this latest book more than once. The Snicket universe likes to have it both ways with playful fantasies. In these books you can both inhabit familiar clichés (bandaged villains in disguise, indestructible vehicles) and subvert others by mocking childish phrases.

In my favorite scene towards the end of the book, Lemony Snicket and Jake Hix are desperately trying to pry open a hatch which doesn’t seem to be budging.

“Hangfire did it,” I said. “We need to open this hatch, Jake. We need to open it now.”

“My aunt always says that if you put your mind to it, you can do absolutely anything,” Jake said. “Is that true?”

“No,” I said. “It’s nonsense. But we can open this hatch..”

Some might say the tone of Snicket novels is “sardonic” or “bittersweet,” but I think “counterintuitive optimism” is closer to the truth; a phrase here meaning “your assumptions about life, positivity and everything will be totally mixed up by reading awesome Lemony Snicket books.”

The stakes in these books are always deceptively low (missing statues, formulas for invisible ink) but the emotional stakes are secretly finding their way into the canals of the reader’s brain, just like the ink spreading out from a frightened octopus. This diffusing cloud of emotions created by a reading a Lemony Snicket book is different from said cloud of octopus ink in two ways: 1. It’s not a real cloud. 2. It makes you feel good. If you’ve never read a Lemony Snicket book, there’s no reason to feel like you need to “catch up.” Just read this one. We all know what “catching up” really means: “I’m too intimidated by this awesome thing to even begin tackling it.”

Don’t be a frightened octopus! Dive in!

 

Lemony Snicket's When Did You Last See Her? is available now from Little, Brown Books for Younge Readers


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and is frequently hiding in plain sight, disguised as himself. His writing has appeared in “numerous places” a phrase here which means “A lot of science fiction publications, pop culture sites, and recently, The New York Times.

7 comments
Shawn Cooke
1. Shawn Cooke
How is this series different in tone from A Series of Unfortunate Events? Because reading your description of this volume of the new series really made me want to read it... but I simply could not enjoy the original series.

SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE SLIPPERY SLOPE AND A GAME OF THRONES.

I'll tell you the exact moment I put it down for good. It was at the beginning of The Slippery Slope, in which Violet uses olive oil as a "sticky" food to stop the caravan. For quite some time I had grown more and more frustrated with the author's attempts to match cartoonish, often non-sensical solutions to real, emotionally charged problems. We are constantly told of the children's cleverness, but the author does not seem to be able to show us the cleverness he tells us of.

What frustrated me is that Handler is far cleverer than that. The books are structured in a way that continually sets up and subverts tropes. The nearest allusion I could draw would be George R.R. Martin, who seems to delight in hinting at ways the characters can prevent tragedy, and then unraveling them to let the tragedy take hold.

From your description, it sounds like All the Wrong Questions manages to subvert reader expectations very well. But does it do it without engaging in cartoony, slapstick, faux-clever plans and contraptions? If it does, then I'll go buy the first volume right away.
Shawn Cooke
2. paigecm
I loved the whole Series of Unfortunate Events from start to finish, even with the crazy contraptions. But I wanted more reveals than we got at the end, and I got a bit annoyed with Handler for apparently moving onto seemingly unrelated stuff. Annoyed is the wrong word, perhaps -- it's his life, not mine. More accurate to say that I lost confidence that he was even interested in any further revelations, as opposed to just nimble string jerking. But you've made me intrigued...
Shawn Cooke
3. AlexKingstonIsMyAvatar
You want a real intro to Daniel Handler's books? Try "The Latke Who Wouldn't Stop Screaming". It is a true holiday classic, no matter what your holiday or lack thereof. It's just joy distilled into tiny book form.
Shawn Cooke
4. Captain Clarinetist
I've loved every Snicket book under the sun, and "When Did You See Her Last?" has somehow snuck it's way into my #1 favorite Snicket novel, which I never thought would happen as my favorite has always been "The End". WDYSHL was original, raw, touching, humorous, and gave some (well hidden) answers to some questions that have been burning in every readers' minds since Handler left us hanging at the shore of the Island.
Shawn Cooke
5. Al Funcoot
If you've read the A Series Of Unfortunate Events series, you should definitely read this book. If you look closely enough, you'll notice many connections. I hope that Beatrice will make an appearance in the 3rd or 4th book, and perhaps we will find out why they could not marry. These books and the ASoUE books are so good, and it surprises me that that they are not more popular.
Shawn Cooke
6. charlie72203
I loved "when did you see her last" It wasent dark like outher lemony snicket books. Its a realey good book for 4th graders and I just finished it!
Shawn Cooke
7. rocko212
Ha, I'm actually not liking this new ATWQ series as much as the original 13 books for the opposite reason, because it's not dark enough. I mean, no one's died yet! I really hope most of the characters die in the fourth one or something. But it's still awesome, and that "It's nonsense" quote is one of my favorite Snicket quotes too.

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