For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burdens had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother. (from Amazon)
You know those family history-slash-memoir books that came out in the 1920s and ’30s? The ones with wit and style and humor, so much so that it all just screamed “flapper”? Well, that’s what Dead End Gene Pool reminds me of. It’s not a true flapper memoir, of course, not least because it’s not set in the 1920s. But the style reminds me of those flapper memoirs, and despite the edge of darkness it’s actually a really fun book to read.
Wendy Burden’s family has a long and somewhat sordid past. They did great things and spent a lot of money, and somewhere along the way they became infected with “bad genes” (hence the title). Nearly every member of Ms Burden’s family has got some sort of trouble, be it drugs, alchoholism, mental problems or a proclivity towards suicide, and yet Ms Burden manages to write of their lives in such a way that you feel sympathetic and a bit disappointed with the way things turned out, like watching a butterfly become stuck in a spider’s web. Everyone had so much potential– the Vanderbilt family was/is brilliant as well as rich– but the sticky strings of money, boredom, and an overinflated sense of self damned the Vanderbilt family just as the trapped butterfly is damned to being eaten.
Of course, not all of the Vanderbilt family is trapped. Wendy seems to have gotten away after a bit of fiddling with the sticky strings, so perhaps her genes have reverted back into the “good” ones and the family’s future isn’t entirely doomed to hungry spiders after all. Somehow I always think that if at least one member of a family can pull off writing a great book, that must mean that the rest of the family will be okay later, too. Like it’s by proxy, almost– although I don’t think it ever actually happens, sadly enough.
If you like family memoirs that showcase quirky, lovable, and slightly manical people but doesn’t ever get overly saccharine or cute, you should definitely check out Dead End Gene Pool. The combination of darkness and humor was just perfect.
Read: March 21-23, 2011