To say that the Hardscrabble children — Otto, Lucia (Lu-CHEE-ah, thank you very much), and Max — are a bit odd is an understatement. Max is one of those brilliant know-it-alls who drive people nuts; Lucia is hopelessly, shamelessly candid, and Otto hasn’t talked since their mom disappeared several years ago. They live in Little Trunks, which is about as exciting as its name, with their slightly absentminded artist (he specializes in portraits of fallen royals) father.
Their existence is fairly boring, partially due to everyone in town avoiding them like the plague (and partially due to the fact that Little Trunks is just a boring place). And yet, one eventful afternoon, their father sends them down to London to stay with their aunt… who, it turns out, isn’t there. (Gone on holiday to Germany, it seems.) Thus begins their adventure. There’s some mystery, a lot of close scrapes, some new friends, and a few new relations as well. At any rate, they become a lot less of whatever they were, and a lot more interesting.
The book reads much like a Lemony Snicket one — a comparison which is probably inevitable considering the cover — but without all the “oh, and what next?!?” feeling that went along with the adventures of the Baudelaire children. It helps that there’s a meta element going on here: often our narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed, but we are invited to guess at) pops out of the story to give us, as readers, asides about the action and plot, and pass along advice that their teacher, Mr. Dupuis, has give them in writing this. It’s not that the plot wasn’t enough to carry the book; the adventure of the Hardscrabble kids is actually quite interesting, especially with the mystery of their lost mother overshadowing it. But the asides add that little something that makes the book that much more fun.
It’s a dark little story, but with the right balance of dark and funny to make it truly enjoyable, and it’s fascinating how the mystery unravels at the end. Just about perfect, I would say. (But don’t tell the Hardscrabble kids that. They might not like it.)