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Review: Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Review: Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden post image

Title: Dead End Gene Pool
Author: Wendy Burden
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for TLC Book Tours
Rating: ★★★☆☆

One Sentence Summary: Rich people are different than you and me, and that’s probably ok — their lives don’t sound that great to me anyway.

One Sentence Review: Wendy Burden’s take on her family and self-description as a modern-day Wednesday Addams are quite funny, but the overall book is really just another dysfunctional family story set amidst the rich and failing.

Long Review: Wendy Burden is a great-great-great granddaughter to Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American tycoon in the 1800s who made his fortune in shipping and railroads. Generations later, the Vanderbilt family is on the decline — inbred, wealthy, bored, and constantly drunk. Burden, born in 1955, is brought into the world of chauvinism and booze and watches the family fall apart throughout her childhood and adult life.

When I started this book I had some impression that it was going to be more about the Vanderbilt’s as a declining family, a bigger story about the decline of an American empire or something. While Burden’s connection to Cornelius Vanderbilt is true, it’s not really at all part of the story other than he’s the reason she comes from a rich family. The heart of this memoir isn’t about the Vanderbilt Family, but rather Burden’s complicated relationship with her grandparents, mother, and brothers.

If anything, the Vanderbilt connection is a marketing decision, a way to make what is really just another memoir about a dysfunctional rich family and give it a new twist. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, just a mis-marketing (or my misunderstanding) of the book that I found myself thinking about as I read.

I read another review of this book that said if you read a few pages and liked them, you’d like the entire book. If you didn’t, then you’d probably not love the book much. That’s an assessment I agree with. Burden’s tone, topics, and style are consistently right on the edge of funny and just a little too much, and it doesn’t take long to decide how you feel about them.

I fall more on the like side, although I had a hard time initially getting into this book. The writing style is a little jumpy and the sentences are structured really oddly — extra commas, tons of modifiers, that sort of thing. It got a lot better after the intro, so I’m not sure if that’s just a fluke or what.

But once I was into it, the book got a lot better. Burden does a fantastic job showing what her family was like, and an even better job characterizing herself as a child. She continuously compares herself to Wednesday Addams — dark, weird, and obsessed with death and destruction. Burden shares stories about (childish and unlikely) plots to murder her brothers and her obsession with the decomposition of pigeons, among other things.

Burden’s relationship with her mother is another highlight of the book. After Burden’s father committed suicide, her mother basically abandoned the children with nannies and grandparents in order to travel the world suntanning and drinking margaritas. She marries a few times (to fathers that Burden hates), but basically flees into some sort of drunken escape to get away from the family she doesn’t get along with.

Burden certainly doesn’t cut her mother any slack in these stories, but I did get a sense that she was trying to be fair and understand what motivated her mother, even when the actions were obviously very painful.

If you’re a fan of dysfunctional family memoirs, then this book would be worth reading. If you’re not, then I’d skip it — the book doesn’t offer much unique to the genre that would make it a must read for anyone not already a fan. Burden’s dark and humorous take on what it’s like to watch the downfall of the rich is definitely amusing, even if the book tries to market itself as a little more than that.

tlc logoOther Reviews: BookNAround | Books are Like Candy Corn | A Bookshelf Monstrosity | The Girl from the Ghetto | In Laurie’s Mind | The Full TLC Book Tour List

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jenny May 17, 2010, 11:09 am

    I like dysfunctional families as much as the next person, but I’m not sure I’m on board with this title. How can a pool be a dead end? I get what she’s going for here, but I think the metaphors are too mixed to work out.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:39 am

      Jenny: I assume the title comes from the idea that the family is falling apart and on the decline — aside from Burden and her brothers, I don’t think there were many heirs left from the family. But what you noticed — mixed metaphors — was another thing I saw in the book. She tends to make odd comparisons or analogies that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

  • Louise May 17, 2010, 12:02 pm

    Dysfunctional families..great! Like ’em even better if they are set in the American South!

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:40 am

      Louise: Dysfunctional families can be fun, but I can only take them in small doses. I’m not a lover of the genre, but liked this one enough. And the South tends to jump amplify some of that stuff 🙂

  • Lisa May 17, 2010, 2:42 pm

    Burden’s mom was a real piece of work! I liked that Burden was able to look at her family with humor.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:41 am

      Lisa: Yes, quite the piece of work indeed. I think her sense of humor is part of what saves the book — if she were bitter about how she’d been treated I don’t think the book would have worked as well.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) May 17, 2010, 2:47 pm

    I’m getting ready to start this book and I do like this type of memoir, for some odd reason, so I’ll probably enjoy it.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:42 am

      bermudaonion: I think books like this can be fun, probably for the same reason we slow down to look at car wrecks — at least it’s no us! At least, that’s how I feel 🙂

  • Care May 18, 2010, 6:39 am

    I hate to admit that I gave up on this at page 110. You’ll have to tell me a quick wrap up and/or what I missed during bkblogcon… Maybe I read too many reviews.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:43 am

      Care: For sure 🙂 If i weren’t reading it for a tour, I might have not made it through the intro because of the writing style being so off at the beginning. I’m glad I kept reading though, I felt like it got better once I was into it.