Monday, July 16, 2012

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden — 288 pgs

Growing up as the the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden lives life in what she calls Burdenland, shuttling between her grandparents’ lavish homes and the more emotionally complex world where she lives with her mother and two brothers. As Wendy describes the heady lifestyle lived by her grandmother and grandfather and their plethora of servants, she delights her readers in the ridiculousness of their excesses and their outlandish eccentricities. Wendy herself is an enigma. She is a young girl who is entranced by the mortuary sciences and who delights in her attempts to emulate Wednesday Addams. She’s sarcastic and wild, yet somehow vulnerable and naive. She longs for a more normal life and feels alienated as her mother repeatedly tramps off to the Caribbean in search of the perfect tan. She often feels marginalized in a family where only the males are considered worthy and important. From tales of her ultra-flatulent grandmother, to her endless wars with her mother's series of ever-revolving beaus, Wendy's chronicle of her early life is heartily succinct and often penetrating. Her life here is presented as a strange series of vignettes where she struggles between two very different ways of life, never quite knowing which one fits.

I’d heard many good things about this book from all the media outlets and there were even some rumors that it would be the biggest hit of the summer. I know that many have been waiting for the chance to read it, and I have been one of them. I think that placing such high expectations on a book can sometimes be ruinous, and in this case I feel like that warning has been borne out for me. Though I went into this book very excited and hoping for a lot, I think that all the hype the book has gotten lately really worked against it.

First of all, while this is definitely supposed to be a humorous and cynical book, at times I felt that the story the author told was just sad. While her mother cavorted all over the globe in an effort to escape her responsibilities, her three children were often left alone to fend for themselves or shuttled off to their ridiculously rich grandparents’ houses where they were all but ignored. The elder Burdens seemed to view the children as mobile pieces of furniture, and at no time did I ever get the feeling that the kids were the welcome visitors that they were supposed to be. Wendy's mother was horrible as well. She was extremely shrew-like and constantly harped on her daughter about her weight and appearance, not noticing that Wendy had a penchant for disturbing fantasies about mortuaries and dead people, or that her eldest son was withdrawn and on shaky ground emotionally. As boyfriend after boyfriend entered the picture, her mother rushed to fulfill these men's longings, never mind what was best for her kids. Wendy relates all this with grand flashes of droll humor, but I'd bet that as a child she often felt alienated and alone. As a matter of fact, she even admits to having these feelings as a youngster, but laughs it off from her adult vantage point several years later.

Wendy's type of family may have been typical for the times in which she grew up, where children were less coddled and adults looked first to their own needs, but in today's society they would have been deemed extremely negligent and possibly even abusive. Money was the only thing that they seemed to care for, and I quickly grew tired of reading about the laundry list of possessions that they had amassed throughout their lives. It's one thing to read about the filthy rich but quite another to fill a book with a pointless inventory of their treasures. Most of these sections bored me and I almost began to relish the focus on Wendy's disturbing behavior, if only to relieve me of the cataloguing of family histories and rehashing of expensive objects. It was meant to intrigue, I'm sure, but it had the opposite effect on me.

The troubling aspects of the family's mental disorders and flagrant abuse of prescription drugs also bothered me. I mean, why in God's name didn't these people ever seek help? They basically swept these secrets under the rug and let the mental illnesses filter down through the generations, heedlessly putting their loved ones in needless danger. There was the uncle that was basically a functioning psychotic who imbibed caffeine and stimulants like they were air, the various members of the family that committed or attempted suicide, and the older generation that looked quietly away from it all. It was sort of frightening to tell you the truth. That Wendy was fascinated by dead and decomposing birds or that she tried to fry her brother's hamster on the stove was frankly not all that surprising.

There was a lot of pain in this story masquerading as humor, and it was impossible not to feel the weight of it all pressing down you as you read. I wasn't sure what to make of the point of this book. It was not only haunting, but very, very sad that the people who these children relied upon to give them love and attention basically ignored them and fed them to the dual wolves of materialism and mental illness. It surprised me to discover that she doesn't harbor a lot of ill will towards her family, but one can argue that their portrayal in this book was revenge enough.

Overall, I finished this book with a lot of sadness and felt that Wendy and her siblings had suffered a great deal during her earlier years. I don't feel that Wendy was really at fault for the things that happened to her, but I do feel that I have to be honest about my reaction to this book. Others may find the story wry and sarcastic, but for me, the endeavor of reading it left me feeling morbidly curious about the family's continued survival, which is not exactly a comfortable feeling. A disturbing read to say the least, and one that I won't soon forget.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

21 comments:

Mary (Bookfan) said...

Hmm not sure this is one for me. I think many times humor is used to mask pain - in memoirs and life. Great review, Heather!

bermudaonion said...

I didn't love this book either. I felt like much of the book and its humor were mean spirited.

Audra said...

Eeee, these books are like roadside car accidents: I've got that macabre curiosity but then I always regret looking! :/ I love the cover -- twisted. Books like this make me want to shake those terrible parents -- how can they be so awful??

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I would react like you! I think I would have to skip this one, because I hate books that make me feel like children were abused!

Vasilly said...

The cover is so horrible that I would have never thought about picking it up. Now, I want to read it. I can imagine your frustration with the adults in this book.

geosi said...

I doubt whether this is for me but I enjoyed your thoughts on this. Cheers!

Literary Feline said...

I can feel the weight of the book from just your description and thoughts about it. It certainly does sound sad. I hadn't really heard much about this book before your review--and so am not aware of the hype. I'm curious about it though, even in your disappointment of it. I don't know that it is a book I would want to read any time soon, but maybe down the road.

nomadreader said...

I don't read much nonfiction, but hearing the sadness of this one does not compel me to read it. For some reason, I'm drawn to sad and depressing fiction, but with non-fiction I'm not. Great review with good food for thought.

Brooke said...

I think I'll have to definitely be in a certain 'mood' for this book, but I'm still very interested in reading it. Mainly because I have a slight obsession with the Vanderbilt family.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Oh, boy. It's always tough to not feel for a book that has a lot of hype about it. I get super-nervous in picking up a hyped about book (the reason why I haven't read A Discovery of Witches, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and much more). I can see why this may have suffered that same fate, what a shame! Ah, well, we all can't love all the books we read so think not one more thought about it; on to the next one!

Ti said...

You've written a very thought provoking review. I don't think I'd care for the laundry list of possessions either and although Wendy sounds interesting enough, it saddens me if her antics are a result of negligence on her parents' part. I imagine a child would act out and be "different" if she felt it would get her a little bit of attention. Did she really try to cook a hamster? Ugh!

Suko said...

I read this one a while ago. Your review is excellent and helps to refresh my memory of it. (The very rich have their own set of problems.)

Stephanie said...

I do love eccentric characters, and this sounds like a novel that might appeal to me. It does sound depressing, though. So much of what we clearly see as child abuse was considered "normal" parenting back in the day. :-( Great review!

Jenners said...

Yowza. Not sure I want to read it actually, but it does reinforce my belief that money doesn't mean you will be happy. Some of the richest people are often the most messed up.

Athira said...

That sounds like one crazy family! Like you, I also get bothered by hype and it ruins my reading experience. I've heard so much about this one, that I think I will wait awhile before reading it. I feel that I may also have that same morbid curiosity.

Lisa said...

I definitely liked this book better than you did, although I did find it very sad. I'd have to agree that I think Burden uses humor to skewer her family, but I suppose she developed that cynical humor as the only way to cope with the way she was raised.

Jenny said...

This one was a DNF for me... I had a really hard time getting into it!

Beth F said...

Oh wow. I'm so glad I never picked this up. I don't like that mean kind of humor that is just covering up sadness and depression.

bibliosue said...

It just goes to show that rich people don't really "have it all". They may have a lot of material wealth but emotionally .... ???

A very nice thoughtful review.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Now I want to drop everything and begin my audio copy as well:)

Aarti said...

I have really wanted to read a book about the Vanderbilts and their pretty spectacular fall from richest people in the world to having no money at all in the course of two generations. But maybe this isn't the way to go? There's another book written by a Vanderbilt on my wish list that may be a better fit for me. From your review above, it's not hard to see just how the family slipped so far so quickly. Gosh.

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