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Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir Hardcover – April 1, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 96 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Burden offers up her version of growing up Vanderbilt in this amusing, often-heartbreaking, poor-little-rich-girl tale. As the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Burden experienced a childhood populated by a cast of suitably wacky WASPs, whose personal and professional ambitions had progressively declined over the course of several overindulged and dangerously inbred generations. Born in 1955, she and her brothers spent their kaleidoscopic childhood raised by rich, eccentric grandparents, Gaga and Popsie, and an extensive surrogate family of servants, while their jet-setting mother—strangely liberated by their father’s suicide—galloped around the globe, gin in hand, desperately seeking her next husband and the perfect tan. This blueblood tale is spun so deftly and so charmingly that it is easy to forget that this it is essentially a sad story of family neglect and degeneration. Burden joins the ranks of such memoirists as Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris, who have successfully mined their dysfunctional childhoods for comedic gold. --Margaret Flanagan


"In this dark and humorous memoir Wendy Burden takes us inside the family circus that was her side of the Vanderbilt dynasty, bringing American class structure, sibling rivalry and the decline of the bluebloods vividly to life. It is a wonderful read."
-Gus Van Sant

"Charles Addams meets Carrie Bradshaw in this honest, sardonic, and touching memoir. Burden's tale makes for riveting and often hilarious reading."
-Jane Stanton Hitchcock, New York Times bestselling author of Social Crimes and Mortal Friends

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 279 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham; 1st edition (April 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592405266
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592405268
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,287,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a tough book for me to review because I enjoyed a lot of the anecdotes, but perhaps more since they invoked some nostalgia on my part than for the humor that seemed to be the lynchpin on which the marketing of the book was based. In other words, I was expecting a different book from the one that I read, but it was still a good book.

I fully agree with another reviewer who said she didn't find the book all that humorous; I really didn't, either. The interest for me was in the personal feelings of a girl who is growing up--the sibling rivalry, the Christmastime anticipation and the big reveal that Santa doesn't exist, the way her family interacted with one another. All of this really rang true to me, and if you take away the trappings a lot of Ms. Burden's experiences are universal. That, to me, was the appeal of the book, along with a few delicious bon mots about the Vanderbilts and a description of some of the family houses, which sent me off on a Googling frenzy to see what they looked like.

The shortcomings of the book were that in some places, the pacing did fall off quite a bit. Some of the stories just weren't that interesting, and the way they were put together was choppy at times. In addition, the book could have used a better editor; a number of typos and grammatical errors made it through to the final version.

To me this book was very reminiscent of A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle by Liza Campbell. The two women shared a very similar upbringing and experiences; however, the book by Campbell was in my opinion the better read of the two. In summary, the book was entertaining but uneven. The way it was marketed (humor! scandal!) doesn't match up with what, to me, was appealing about the story, which was the universal experiences of growing up.
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Format: Paperback
If I could give this zero stars, I would. I read about half-way through this book before I had to stop reading it because the author graphically described two near-murders of animals, caused by herself (boiling pet turtles and frying her hamster in a frying pan) - and even more sickeningly, she tries to make the incidents sound humorous. Burden writes about these atrocities as if they are childish whims, rather than the actions of a very nasty and disturbed child. She was incapable of getting the attention she desired from her distant family so she turned to abusing animals to put herself in the spotlight - both in her past, and now in present day by writing this book. In the end, Burden isn't talented enough to gloss over her pathetic upbringing and make it funny. Bitterness and resentment are a long way from sarcasm and satire. All the book proves is that she hasn't matured from being a jealous 6 year old.
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Format: Hardcover
The trick to money is to have a lot, but not too much.

What's too much?

I could tell you --- I was once married to the daughter of the second or third richest woman in America --- but you probably wouldn't believe me. Better that you find out for yourself. Just start accumulating wealth. When you have enough, you'll feel great. When you have too much, some new friends --- gloom, anxiety and a nasty sense of meaninglessness --- will show up, and never leave. Guaranteed.

Speaking of misery, let's consider the heritage of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in his day the richest man in America. (Here's just one of his estates.) Wendy Burden is his great-great-great granddaughter. It is astonishing, given her bloodline, that she could pull herself together enough to write Dead End Gene Pool. It's even more astonishing that she's alive.

When Wendy was six, her father killed himself. After that, she writes, "I only spent time with my mother when she was getting ready to leave. My brother and I had recently come to view her as a glamorous lodger who rented the master bedroom suite."

It would be easy to write this memoir from the Valley of Bitterness --- but then you'd have to live there. Wendy Burden chooses to reside on the Mountain of Absurdity. Smart move. Why waste energy on hating your mother when you can rip off lines like this, about Leslie Lepington Hamilton Burden dropping her young daughter at the airport and fleeing the jurisdiction: "She could make it downtown to Trader Vic's in less time than it takes to put on a pair of sheer black stockings and get the seams straight."

So Wendy and her brothers fell, by default, into the care of their grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden II.
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Format: Hardcover
First, Wendy Burden has extraordinary recall of the details of her childhood. Mine was far less eventful, and much more normal, so my own memories are scarce. Her life, and the lives of her great- and grandparents were pretty extraordinary - not least the autocratic way in which her grandfather would simply order two dozen grouse from Scotland for dinner the next night, with no consideration whatsoever for the cost or trouble to others. Or the fact that so many alcoholics lived such long lives...
Second, the level of money seems to be inversely proportional to any maternal or paternal feeling. It's rather as if the Burden children raised themselves, and not so successfully.
Third, the book suffers from a lack of organization and insight. Stories about the grandparents are scattered throughout the book, along with stories about Wendy's mother - with no coherent time line. Plus, the author is now an adult but seems to have absolutely no insight about what things from her past might really mean, using an adult understanding.
I didn't find this to be a great read but it was an interesting book to skim.
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