Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher for the Spring Reading Series at Books On The Brain
Wendy Burden is the great- great- great- granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt family was one of the wealthiest family in America for generations but by the time Wendy was born the fortunes of the various family branches were starting to dwindle and the gene pool was definitely getting shallow. Wendy's father was the Vanderbilt and when he committed suicide, his parents cut Wendy's mother off financially. She still managed to find enough money to keep herself in vacations, fancy clothes, and booze but she had almost no interest in parenting her three children. Wendy's grandparents insisted on having the children visit often and they certainly spoiled the children. But they weren't much better at paying attention to them. In fact Wendy says she felt much more as if the servants were her family.
What makes this book different from the other tales of poor little rich kids you've read? Burden's biting sense of humor and tough chick attitude. When she was young, she fancied herself to be Wednesday Addams, had an obsession with the macabre, and was something of a hellion. She frequently thought of ways to kill her brother (in the duck press for example); once, along with her brother took every bit of food out of the kitchen of one of her grandparents' homes to teach her grandfather and the chef a lesson; and, one summer, kept a collection of dead birds in various stages of decomposition.
Burden takes shots at everyone in her family and on the staff, but seems to take particular pleasure in going after her mother (who, frankly, seems to deserve everything she gets) who spends most of Burden's childhood telling her how fat she is and all of her own adult life in a drunken stupor.
I laughed out loud frequently and read bits of the book often to my husband (apparently it helps if you are actually reading the book to find it funny). I started to wonder if I might be a mean person to think it was so funny to make fun of a family that is so clearly screwed up. Seriously, if my kids made fun of people in the same way, I would scold them.
As the book progressed, the suicidal tendencies and the effects of the family's alcoholism started to take their toll and the humor did start to seem mean to me. It was a little painful to watch Burden grow up without any real emotional attachment to anyone in her family. The pacing of the book felt a bit uneven to me, slowing as the book went on, and the stories lost much of their bite.
Do not go into the book expecting to learn about the history of the Vanderbilt family; other than the initial run down of how the family descended down to Wendy, there is very little here to connect Burden to the Vanderbilt name.