Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rich are Different: the tale of the Vanderbilts

Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, was the sort of book I wanted to read from the moment I heard about it. As she says in her introduction, the rich behaving badly are fun to read about it. After I finished the book, I'm not 100% sure that 'fun' would thoroughly describe it.

Wendy is the great x8 (or something like that) grand-daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In the introduction, she traces her lineage more precisely. But her dad's side of the family is definitely Old Money. For all that, though, her dad gets almost no screen time, and that's reflective of Wendy's life: he killed himself when she was only 6. She spends the next three years in Burdenland with her grandparents and her brother, whom they favor almost to the point of cruelty.

Those parts are a little hard to read, but nevertheless, they're engaging, populated as they are with vodka-swilling servants and crazy uncles. The most complex character that emerges is Wendy's mother. When we first meet her, she seems sort of stereotypical: after her husband's suicide, she becomes a sort of wealthy playgirl, obsessed with tanning, fashion and alcohol, never around much for her kids, more interested in the man of the moment. All this changes when she marries her late husband's autocratic, arms-dealing best friend and moves the children back in. It changes again when they move to England and she enrolls in Oxford to earn a Ph.D in numismatics. Your opinion of her sort of shifts, too.

In some parts, the book is a bit incoherent. I recently got to interview another memoirist, Catherine Gildiner, and she advised memoir-writers not to worry too much about an inability to remember everything, just start with what they did remember and look to draw connections. Sometimes, I think Burden forced the connections too hard, brought in things that weren't really there. The end, with her once-formidable grandparents much reduced by age, and her brothers descending into drug and alcohol addiction, is heartbreaking.

I did enjoy the book overall, though, even if it wasn't exactly the lighthearted romp or even the dark tale I expected.

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