Whew! If you are going to write a memoir, you have to be prepared for the skeptical reader. This reader is going to be asking herself from the first page why she should bother to spend her time with you. After all, we were all kids. Some of us had crazy parents and feel bad about it. Others were monstrous children. Really, here’s the question, memoir writer: what makes you so special?
Wendy Burden has that all figured out. She is a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in a branch of the family that held onto what my mother used to call “real money” well into the twentieth century. So there’s the voyeuristic angle, and I have to admit it’s good. We’re talking granny in Balmain and grandpa being driven in a car the size of a railroad car, living in an apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue that has features like a staff dining room. Travel, clothes, education, art, expensive psychotropic medications — whatever your particular poison might be, the Burdens had lots of it. Then there’s the crazy-family angle. Burden’s got that under control, too. After all, her father shot himself when she was six. But what makes Dead End Gene Pool something more than a hyper version of Cheerful Money is Burden’s wisecracking tone. This is a woman who used the works of Charles Addams to help her figure out her world. Two very different friends told me how funny this book is, and I can almost see it. (I’m just a little sensitive on the WASP dysfunction business.) Burden is prone to wisecracks like “I guess that’s one of the only problems with old money — you get bored with it.”
Well, you won’t get bored with this, I guarantee. It has the compulsively readable quality that I also find in Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing: you may not be precisely enjoying it, but you sure can’t shut the book. One quality that I do admire is Burden’s lack of self-pity. By some standards she was dealt a poor hand of cards. There was a strong strain of mental illness in her family and her father was only one of the casualties. Two of her uncles (and probably a third) as well as both of her brothers did a spectacular amount of self-medicating, with disastrous results. Her mother, a bright and beautiful creature, was strikingly short on maternal feeling. Thus Wendy spent much of her childhood parked with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William A.M.Burden, Jr., who led a fundamentally Edwardian existence in a series of uncomfortably modern houses. Mom phoned in, usually from some resort. When she and Wendy were forced to live together, their communication relied on mutual sniping.
But Wendy Burden is not a whiner. She understands privilege, what it does for you and to you. Nor is she even faintly sentimental. No cozy forgiveness, just a steely, detached compassion. No cobbled-together warmth, no damn redemption in this memoir! That may be my favorite thing about it. Burden’s not mad, but she got even.