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Review: Dead End Gene Pool

May 25, 2010

Wendy Burden is the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt on her father’s side, so she was born into a world of wealth and servants.  Wendy’s father committed suicide when she was six years old; her grandparents felt that her mother was at least partly responsible, so they cut her off financially.  They still tried to maintain a close relationship with their grandchildren, though, so Wendy and her brothers visited them quite often.  The Burdens were quirky as only the abundantly wealthy can be.  Wendy’s mother was having problems of her own.  Her tan, her men and her alcohol all seemed to come before her children.

I was really excited to get the opportunity to read Wendy Burden’s memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, but didn’t end up loving the book like I thought I would.  That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, because I did – I just didn’t love it.    Wendy certainly did have an interesting life – between the opportunities her grandparents’ wealth afforded her and her mother’s obsession with her latest man, Wendy and her brothers were given very mixed messages.  That probably would have been okay, except that none of the adults in their lives showed them any affection or love.

Dead End Gene Pool had the potential to be the kind of book I love, but I did have a couple of problems with it.    The chapters are written as individual stories and didn’t flow well together for me.  Parts of the book were funny:

Other than that, things were okay.  Meaning, I was mostly having a decent childhood, other than the glaring hole of deprivation caused by my not having a pony.

but a lot of the humor felt mean-spirited to me.  I have a feeling that’s just me, though – a lot of other reviews have cited the humor as one of the reasons they liked this book.  This book left me feeling a little sad after I finished it – I felt like Wendy never made peace with her mother or her childhood.  Overall, I would say Dead End Gene Pool was good, but not great.

Review copy provided by Penguin Books for the Spring Reading Series on Books on the Brain.  I am an Indiebound Affiliate.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2010 5:08 am

    I suppose none of us would blame the poor woman for harboring ill sentiment towards her family, but I can imagine it isn’t something that gives you warm fuzzies, eh? I mean, it just doesn’t get much worse than The Glass Castle, but Walls writes it in a way that is completely without judgement. She let’s her mother live on her property now…after everything she has done! I really prefer a memoir that takes the higher road.

  2. May 25, 2010 5:30 am

    I really enjoyed your review. This certainly is not a “warm and fuzzy” type of memoir. I did enjoy the memoir, I thought the humor was great but I also felt bad for her. I wondered if raising her own children caused her to closely examine the way she was raised.

  3. May 25, 2010 5:43 am

    I’m glad you reviewed this. Since moving to Asheville, I’ve developed a fascination for Vanderbilt-related lore, and this was one of those books that I’ve had on my (very, very long) to-read list. It’s fascinating how large the memoir pool has become in these days of total transparency and social media. I’m reminded that celebrity doesn’t necessarily make for a good memoir, and that how the story is told (that is, good writing) is often more important than the tale.

  4. May 25, 2010 7:28 am

    I find this book fascinating. Imagine growing up getting glimpses of that kind of life. I am sorry you didn’t love it though. I might keep this one for my New York stop.

  5. May 25, 2010 8:05 am

    Thank you for your review. Think I will pass on this book. However, I would be interested in reading about the family because I recall hearing, think it was on Oprah, that Anderson Cooper from CNN, is a Vanderbilt.
    CMash

  6. May 25, 2010 8:16 am

    We toured the Biltmore once, in Asheville, and my husband still talks about the bowling alley!

  7. May 25, 2010 8:27 am

    I totally agree with your assessment of this book, though I think I liked it a lot less than you did. It did feel really mean-spirited and I just ended up feeling really sad for the kids. A lot of it was kind of bizarre as well, and it just left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I am so glad to find out that I am not the only one who had some problems with this book!! Very insightful review!!

  8. May 25, 2010 9:00 am

    My father just visited the Vanderbilt estate. He said that it was incredible. I’d like to read a memoir from a servant’s perspective. I do love the title and cover of this book!

  9. May 25, 2010 9:31 am

    Hadn’t heard of this one. Enjoyed your review.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

  10. May 25, 2010 1:35 pm

    I had a hunch this book was going to be a downer when I saw the black cover. Just your retelling of the storyline seems very sad. I’ll pass.

  11. May 25, 2010 2:04 pm

    I found this book to be very funny. Maybe sad in a way, too, but mostly just funny.

  12. May 25, 2010 3:10 pm

    I wondered whether this book would work out. Good review.

  13. May 25, 2010 3:18 pm

    I’m only about 50 pages in and feeling guilty that I haven’t read more. I just can’t seem to get into enough to plow through it. I see the humor but it also feels really sad to me.

  14. May 25, 2010 5:56 pm

    Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.

  15. May 25, 2010 8:59 pm

    I don’t know if rich people and their problems holds that much attraction for me!

  16. May 26, 2010 11:18 am

    As much as I think the story would be interesting, I don’t know if I could listen to an extrememly well off person complain. I’ll take a pass. Thanks for the review 🙂

  17. May 26, 2010 4:15 pm

    Agreed–good but not great. Although I did like the humor. I felt like it was the defense mechanism she had built up to deal with her very odd upbringing.

  18. May 26, 2010 8:53 pm

    I really have to be in a certain mood to enjoy memoirs.

  19. May 27, 2010 12:49 am

    Sounds interesting. Yours is the first review I’m read. The premise of the book does sound very good.

  20. June 4, 2010 6:12 am

    I know what you mean about mean spirited humour…to me, the tone she used to write this book was a huge cover up for pain she experienced in her childhood.

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