In this book, the Baudelaires are sent to live with a wealthy couple living in the penthouse of a tall apartment building.
Ersatz is German for "fake" so the title means "the fake elevator", although it is unlikely the reader knows this. The elevator being fake is one of the plot twists, so it could be Lemony Snicket teasing the reader as ersatz is only defined after the plot twist.
If you have just picked up this book, then it is not too late to put it back down. Like the previous books in A Series of Unfortunate Events, there is nothing to be found in these pages but misery, despair, and discomfort, and you still have time to choose something else to read.
Within the chapters of this story, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, encounter a brightly colored staircase, a red herring, some friends in a dire situation, three mysterious initials, a liar with an evil scheme, a secret passageway, and parsley soda.
I have sworn to write down these tales of the Baudelaire orphans so the general public will know each terrible thing that has happened to them, but if you decide to read something else instead, you will save yourself from a heapful of horror and woe.
With all due respect,
- For Beatrice–
- When we met, my life began.
- Soon afterward, yours ended.
The Baudelaire orphans are brought to their new guardians by Mr. Poe. As they approach 667 Dark Avenue, the Baudelaires' new home, they approach a huge penthouse that blocks the sunlight. The doorman, who is dressed in a long coat that covers his hands, explains to them that they won't be able to use the elevator to get to the penthouse where their guardians live. He explains the elevator is not out of order, but the neighborhood recently decided that elevators and light are no longer "in," or fashionable ("out"). Mr. Poe, who was recently promoted to his bank's Vice President in Charge of Orphan Affairs, departs for a helicopter ride in search of the two remaining Quagmire triplets, leaving the Baudelaire orphans to walk the daunting 66 flights to the penthouse.
After a long, exhausting and dark march upwards, the Baudelaires come to the penthouse. As the door is opened, they are welcomed by Jerome Squalor who leads them through several rooms as dark as the street and lobby. He offers them aqueous martinis (actually just water in a fancy glass with an olive) and introduces them to his wife Esmé Squalor who is a very "in" person and the city's sixth most important financial adviser. She explains everything that is "in" and "out," and explains that orphans are very "in" right now. They get a phone call that says light is "in" and dark is "out." The orphans wonder what would happen if orphans were "out." The children are then allowed to pick out their rooms. Violet chooses the room with a workbench although tools are "out." Klaus picks the room next to the library that is full of "in" books on what is "in."
Esmé later mentions that it is boring to listen to the Baudelaires' worries about the two Quagmire triplets. She gives them pinstripe suits she has bought for them because they are very "in." Esmé says they will go to Café Salmonella, an "in" restaurant. She tells them that she will stay at the penthouse with Gunther and discuss the "In" Auction, which she explains is an auction that you sell everything that is "in." Gunther will be the auctioneer. The Baudelaires try on their pinstripes, which they dislike because the suits are way too big.
Gunther approaches. They quickly learn he is Count Olaf. He has a monocle to disguise his eyebrow and boots to disguise his eye tattoo. He uses a funny accent and wears a pinstripe to look "in."
Jerome takes them to Café Salmonella, which the Baudelaires don't enjoy, not because of the bad food, but the thought of Gunther. Jerome explains to them he thinks they are being xenophobic, which in this case means having or showing dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries. The Baudelaires encourage Jerome to see value in arguing with Esmé more, as it meant he could have had a meal he enjoyed, but Jerome dismisses the idea, saying, "Someday, when you're older, you'll understand."
When they arrive home the doorman says no one is allowed up to the penthouse until Gunther leaves, and he says he hasn't. Jerome explains that he may be on his way down and so the doorman lets them go. When they reach the penthouse Esmé tells them that Gunther left a long time ago.
The next day, Jerome offers to take the children to a tailor to fix their pinstripes but Esmé says he must go pick up the new "in" drink, parsley soda. The children are alone and decide to search the penthouse for Gunther, using bread crumbs to track their progress in their ridiculously large suite. They find nothing, so they decide to look for him in the other apartments by listening through doors. They reach the bottom and find nothing but the fact that the building is 66 stories high. The doorman is putting up decorations on the elevator and Klaus begins to think really hard. At that time Esmé and Jerome come in with crates of parsley soda. They climb the staircase while Esmé is talking, Klaus is thinking, and the rest are quiet.
That night Klaus tells his sister that there is one elevator on each floor except for top floor which has two. They go to investigate and find one is an ersatz elevator. They then make an ersatz rope out of cords, ties, and curtains. They climb down and find the Quagmires trapped in a large cage. They say Gunther is trying to put them in as an object for the auction and then have an associate bid the highest and smuggle them out of the city. Violet says she could melt and bend the metal cage and they go back up to make the invention. They find three fire tongs and warm them up in one of the 50 or so ovens in the penthouse. They climb back down to find the Quagmires had been taken by Count Olaf again. They are very grieved and go back up to the penthouse.
There they find a note from Jerome that says he has left and that Esmé will take them to the auction. Klaus decides to look in the auction catalog to see if they can find the lot that the Quagmires will be put into. They decide it must be lot #50, V.F.D. When they go to tell Esmé she agrees with them and grabs them. They calmly walk out the door and she leads them to the ersatz elevator. She opens the door and pushes them down the shaft, but they don't hit the ground. They hit a net and become trapped. Esmé laughs and says that Olaf is a wonderful person and that he was her acting teacher. She leaves them and goes to the auction.
Sunny uses her teeth to climb up the shaft. Violet tells her to get the ersatz rope and jump down here. Sunny bites a hole in the net and they attach the rope to the pegs that hold up the net. They climb through the hole till they reach the bottom. At the bottom are Violet's ersatz welding torches, which they use to light their way down the hall at the bottom. When they reach the end of the long hall they don't know what to do. They try getting someone's attention by banging on the ceiling. Ash falls on them.
They find it's a trap door and they use the tongs to pry the door open. It works and when they get out they are at the Baudelaire Mansion which had been destroyed in a fire. A mailman is spooked by the Baudelaires rising out the ashes of the Baudelaire Mansion, as he thinks they are ghosts and there is a rumor the place is haunted. They ask him for directions to Veblen Hall, the location of the In Auction, and he runs away in fear.
They rush to the auction at Veblen Hall. Inside, they see a huge crowd of people including Mr. Poe and Jerome. One peculiar factor in this scene is that Jerome is seen eating a salmon puff, even though earlier in the book he stated that he can't stand the taste of salmon. This could be a reason to believe that Jerome might be in disguise or stated that he didn't like salmon for some unknown reason. Gunther and Esmé are on the stage where they are just auctioning off Lot #46. They tell Jerome and Mr. Poe to buy them Lot #50. Lot #48, a statue of a red herring, goes to the doorman. He tells his "boss" that they're here.
Gunther skips Lot #49 and goes right to #50 which is a big box with V.F.D. written on it. Mr. Poe and Jerome back down and then Sunny bids $1,000 dollars on it. The Baudelaires rush up and tear the box open only to reveal Very Fancy Doilies. Count Olaf's identity is revealed when he slips on a doily and his boots and monocle come off. He and Esmé run out of the auction hall and the audience that tries to chase them get into a hopeless tangle when slipping on the doilies and tumbling down. It is also revealed that the doorman is The Hook-Handed Man. Olaf, Esmé and the Hook-Handed Man escape in a truck with the red herring, which is where the Quagmires were truly hidden.
The Baudelaires wish to chase after Olaf and rescue their friends. However, Jerome does not because he thinks it is too dangerous. Jerome quits being their guardian, wishes them luck, and sadly says his goodbye. The Baudelaires sit on the steps of Veblen Hall in tears, watching him leave.
Mr. Poe says he thinks the Quagmires are in the mountains, but Duncan nor Isodora were in the mountains. However, Quigley Quagmire was on the Mortmain Mountains with the Baudelaires in The Slippery Slope.
In the last picture of The Ersatz Elevator, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny appear sitting on the steps of Veblen Hall as Very Fancy Doilies fall through the air. A stray black crow can be seen flying across the scene.
Letter to the Editor
To My Kind Editor,
I am sorry this paper is sopping wet, but I am writing this from the place where the Quagmire Triplets were hidden.
The next time you run out of milk, buy a new carton at Cash Register #19 of the Not-Very-Supermarket. When you arrive home, you will find my description of the Baudelaires' recent experience in this dreadful town, entitled THE VILE VILLAGE, has been tucked into your grocery sack, along with a burnt-out torch, the tip of a harpoon, and a chart of the migration paths of the V.F.D. crows. There is also a copy of the official portrait of the Council of Elders, to help Mr. Helquist with his illustrations.
Remember, you are my last hope that the tales of the Baudelaire orphans can finally be told to the general public.
With all due respect,
- Violet Baudelaire
- Klaus Baudelaire
- Sunny Baudelaire
- Duncan Quagmire
- Isadora Quagmire
- Arthur Poe
- Count Olaf (as Gunther)
- Hook-Handed Man (as a doorman)
- Alleviated: The terror of the long, dark fall was alleviated--the word "alleviated" here means "not particularly on Sunny's mind"-- because the youngest Baudelaire knew that a net, and her siblings, were waiting for her at the bottom.
- As if he were the cat's pajamas: Esmé was sitting in a fancy chair and gazing at Gunther as if he were the cat's pajamas, a phrase which here means "a charming and handsome gentleman instead of a cruel and dishonest villain."
- Befuddled: Mr. Poe looked befuddled, a word which here means "as confused as Jerome."
- Broke their fall: Something broke their fall, a phrase which here means that the Baudelaires' plunge was stopped halfway between the sliding elevator doors and the metal cage where the Quagmires had been locked up.
- Charade: A word which here means "pretending to want V.F.D. so Jerome would bid on it and save the Quagmires without knowing it."
- Cul-de-sac: The French expression "cul-de-sac" describes what the Baudelaire orphans found when they reached the end of the dark hallway, and like all French expressions, it is most easily understood when you translate each French word into English. The word "de," for instance, is a very common French word, so even if I didn't know a word of French, I would be certain that "de" means "of." The word "sac" is less common, but I am fairly certain that it means something like "mysterious circumstances." And the word "cul" is such a rare French word that I am forced to guess at its translation, and my guess is that in this case, it would mean "At the end of the dark hallway, the Baudelaire children found an assortment," so that the expression "cul-de-sac" here means "At the end of the dark hallway, the Baudelaire children found an assortment of mysterious circumstances."
- Disconcerting: Esmé was so quiet and calm that it was disconcerting, a word which here means "a warning that the Baudelaire children did not heed in time."
- Dogged determination: The count had pursued them with a dogged determination, a phrase which here means "everywhere they went, thinking up treacherous schemes and wearing disguises to try to fool the three children."
- Fared no better: Poor Sunny fared no better, a phrase which here means "also became bored in her bedroom."
- Hide or hair of them: Jerome and Esmé were apparently spending the evening in some room in another part of the apartment, because the Baudelaires didn't see hide or hair of them--the expression "hide or hair of them" here means "even a glimpse of the city's sixth most important financial advisor, or her husband"
- Hit the jackpot: The two younger Baudelaires were using an expression which here means "Look at these fire tongs--they're perfect!"
- Hubbub: The orphans found themselves in the middle of a hubbub, a word which here means "a huge crowd of people in an enormous, fancy room."
- Knocked him over with a feather: When Jerome caught sight of the orphans, he looked as if you could have knocked him over with a feather, a phrase which here means he seemed happy but extremely surprised to see them.
- Nefarious disguises: The children saw that he was in yet another of his nefarious disguises, a phrase which here means that he did not fool them one bit no matter what he was wearing.
- Never been her forte: Cooking had never been Violet's forte—a phrase which here means "something she couldn't do very well"
- Nodded resolutely: The Baudelaires stood together for another moment and nodded resolutely, a phrase which here means "tried to make themselves stop feeling ungrateful and put on the suits"
- Parchment: Inside this slightly larger wooden box is a roll of parchment, a word which here means "some very old paper printed with a map of the city at the time when the Baudelaire orphans lived in it."
- Red Herring: Something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.
- Stiffening of their resolve: At the mention of the Quagmire triplets, all three Baudelaires felt a stiffening of their resolve, a phrase which here means "realized that they had to search the penthouse for Gunther, even though it was a scary thing to do."
- Taken aback: The Baudelaire children were taken aback, a phrase which here means "surprised that someone who was so selfish had purchased gifts for them"
- Lot #50 of The In Auction is referred to as "V.F.D." It contains Very Fancy Doilies.
References to the Real World
- Main article: References and allusions in Lemony Snicket's works
- Esmé Gigi Genevive Squalor's name is a reference to J.D. Salinger's short story "For Esmé - With Love and Squalor." Esmé's middle names may be referenced as well. Gigi may be a reference to the novella Gigi by French writer Colette, whose story follows a young Parisian girl, in training to be a courtesan, who later marries a wealthy man. Genevive may refer to American politician Coya Knutson.
- Jerome Squalor shares the first name "Jerome" with author J.D.Salinger. Jerome Squalor conveniently has the initials J.S., which is a recurring acronym in the series.
- Gunther, Olaf's disguise, may refer to the ancient King of Burgundy, Gunther.
- The Café Salmonella is a reference to salmon and to the virus of the same name.
- The Verne Invention Museum, said to be located in town, is a reference to Jules Verne, a science-fiction author.
- Akhmatova Book Store, also located in town, is a reference to Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
- Pincus Hospital, where Sunny was born, is an ironic reference to Gregory Goodwin Pincus, inventor of the contraceptive pill.
- There are 1,849 windows in 667 Dark Avenue. 1849 is the year in which Edgar Allan Poe died.
- 667 Dark Avenue is one number away from 666, a number often associated with evil. In an English joke, 667 is "The Neighbour of the Beast." Also, there are 66 floors in the building and this is the sixth book, two more references to the number six.
- Veblen Hall, the site of the auction of mostly useless goods, may be a reference to Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption."
- The opening discussion of nervous versus anxious is reminiscent of The Giver written by Lois Lowry.
- When the Baudelaires first climb the stairs to the penthouse, they overhear a woman say, "Let them eat cake," a quote attributed to Marie Antoinette.
- Jerome Squalor, when discussing xenophobia, mentions Galileo and Jun'ichirō Tanizaki.
- Scylla and Charybdis of Homer's The Oddysey were mentioned by Klaus. However, he incorrectly claims that Heracles, rather than Odysseus, encountered them and escaped "by turning them both into whirlpools."
- Lot 49 of the In Auction, a set of rare stamps, is a reference to the novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.
- 'Red Herring' is a phrase used for a detail that distracts from something of importance. Coincidentally, Lot #50, described as "V.F.D," was a red herring, while the red herring decoration actually contained the Quagmire triplets.
- One of the books in the Squalor library, entitled Boots Were In in 1812, may be a reference to one of the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales, "The Boots of Buffalo Leather," which was supposedly written in 1812.
- While holding an armful of Jerome's neckties Sunny utters, "Armani," a reference to Armani, an Italian fashion house.
- In response to Klaus' recollection of the myth of Hercules, Sunny babbles, "Glaucus," a reference to the mythical Greek figure of the same name.
The Ersatz Elevator has a 4.02/5 on Goodreads.com.
- The book's spine color could be interpreted as being "salmon" pink or "salmon" red, and it may be a nod to the salmon at Café Salmonella.
- The UK cover has been criticized for spoiling the plot twist that Esmé is a villain and that she shoves the Baudelaires down the elevator.
- Two pages are completely black because Lemony Snicket says: "Sometimes words are not enough. There are some circumstances so utterly wretched that I cannot describe them in sentences or paragraphs or even a whole series of books, and the terror and woe that the Baudelaire orphans felt after Esmé pushed them into the elevator shaft is one of those most dreadful circumstances that can be represented only with two pages of utter blackness. I have no words for the profound horror the children felt as they tumbled down into the darkness. I can think of no sentence that can convey how loudly they screamed, or how cold the air was as it whooshed around them while they fell. And there is no paragraph I could possibly type that would enable you to imagine how frightened the Baudelaires were as they plunged toward certain doom."
- This is the first book in the series in which no one dies or is hinted to die (as Ms. Tench may have died). This is true for both the books and the TV series.
- Daniel Handler mentioned while writing the book, he thought it would be funny if a family fell down a fake elevator shaft, and went from there.
- The UK cover came with a wrap band with these lines:
- "Mr. Snicket, are you mentally okay? I mean, do you need a psychologist?" - Breanne Ryan
- "My whole city has probably heard of Lemony Snicket." - Lewiston from Maine
Several editions of The Ersatz Elevator have been published. Some of these include foreign editions or re-prints such as: The Ersatz Elevator (UK), The Ersatz Elevator (UK Paperback) and Ascenseur pour la Peur.
The Ersatz Elevator (UK)
This edition has the same content as in the original one. The main difference here is the cover, which is black, has different fonts and an orange spine. Brett Helquist's illustration is also different. The book is published by Egmont. On each of the UK versions, between the coloured spine and the black cover there are narrow images depicting a reference to each books content. The Ersatz Elevator features what is presumably the ersatz rope used by the Baudelaires in the book. This is repeated on the back cover.
The Ersatz Elevator (UK Paperback)
This is a paperback version of The Ersatz Elevator released in the UK by Egmont Books in 2010. It has Lemony Snicket written on the top with A Series of Unfortunate Events written below it in an eye shape. Unlike the hardback version, the illustration fills up the majority of the cover.
Ascenseur pour la Peur
This French edition, published by Nathan Poche has a very different cover, Brett Helquist's illustration is not seen here, apart for a portrait of the Baudelaires. It is almost entirely black, with a white illustration of gears.