If you have ever peeled an onion, then you know that the first thin, papery layer reveals another thin, papery layer, and that layer reveals another, and another, and before you know it you have hundreds of layers all over the kitchen table and thousands of tears in your eyes, sorry that you ever started peeling in the first place and wishing that you had left the onion alone to wither away on the shelf of the pantry while you went on with your life, even if that meant never again enjoying the complicated and overwhelming taste of this strange and bitter vegetable.
In this way, the story of the Baudelaire orphans is like an onion, and if you insist on reading each and every thin, papery layer in A Series of Unfortunate Events, your only reward will be 170 chapters of misery in your library and countless tears in your eyes. Even if you have read the first twelve volumes of the Baudelaires' story, it is not too late to stop peeling away the layers, and to put this book back on the shelf to wither away while you read something less complicated and overwhelming. The end of this unhappy chronicle is like its bad beginning, as each misfortune only reveals another, and another, and another, and only those with the stomach for this strange and bitter tale should venture any farther into the Baudelaire onion. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
The Baudelaire orphans would have been happy to see an onion, had one come bobbing along as they traveled across the vast and empty sea in a boat the size of a large bed but not nearly as comfortable. Had such a vegetable appeared, Violet, the eldest Baudelaire, would have tied up her hair in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes, and in moments would have invented a device to retrieve the onion from the water. Klaus, the middle sibling and the only boy, would have remembered useful facts from one of the thousands of books he had read, and been able to identify which type of onion it was, and whether or not it was edible. And Sunny, who was just scarcely out of babyhood, would have sliced the onion into bite-sized pieces with her unusually sharp teeth, and put her newly developed cooking skills to good use in order to turn a simple onion into something quite tasty indeed. The elder Baudelaires could imagine their sister announcing "Soubise!" which was her way of saying "Dinner is served."
But the three children had not seen an onion. Indeed, they had not seen much of anything during their ocean voyage, which had begun when the Baudelaires had pushed the large, wooden boat off the roof of the Hotel Denouement in order to escape from the fire engulfing the hotel, as well as the authorities who wanted to arrest the children for arson and murder. The wind and tides had quickly pushed the boat away from the burning hotel, and by sunset the hotel and all the other buildings in the city were a distant, faraway blur. Now, the following morning, the only things the Baudelaires had seen were the quiet, still surface of the sea and the gray gloom of the sky. The weather reminded them of the day at Briny Beach when the Baudelaires had learned of the loss of their parents and their home in a terrible fire, and the children spent much of their time in silence, thinking about that dreadful day and all of the dreadful days that had followed. It almost would have been peaceful to sit in a drifting boat and think about their lives, had it not been for the Baudelaires' unpleasant companion.
Their companion's name was Count Olaf, and it had been the Baudelaire orphans' misfortune to be in this dreadful man's company since they had become orphans and he had become their guardian. Olaf had hatched scheme after scheme in an attempt to get his filthy hands on the enormous fortune the Baudelaire parents had left behind, and although each scheme had failed, it appeared as if some of the villain's wickedness had rubbed off on the children, and now Olaf and the Baudelaires were all in the same boat. Both the children and the count were responsible for a number of treacherous crimes, although at least the Baudelaire orphans had the decency to feel terrible about this, whereas all Count Olaf had been doing for the past few days was bragging about it.
"I've triumphed!" Count Olaf reiterated, a word which here means "announced for the umpteenth time." He stood proudly at the front of the boat, leaning against a carving of an octopus attacking a man in a diving suit that served as the boat's figurehead. "You orphans thought you could escape me, but at last you're in my clutches!"
"Yes, Olaf," Violet agreed wearily. The eldest Baudelaire did not bother to point out that as they were all alone in the middle of the ocean, it was just as accurate to say that Olaf was in the Baudelaires' clutches as it was to say they were in his. Sighing, she gazed up at the tall mast of the boat, where a tattered sail drooped limply in the still air. For some time, Violet had been trying to invent a way for the boat to move even when there wasn't any wind, but the only mechanical materials on board were a pair of enormous spatulas from the Hotel Denouement's rooftop sunbathing salon. The children had been using these spatulas as oars, but rowing a boat is very hard work, particularly if one's traveling companions are too busy bragging to help out, and Violet was trying to think of a way they might move the boat faster.
"I've burned down the Hotel Denouement," Olaf cried, gesturing dramatically, "and destroyed V.F.D. once and for all!"