When Wendy Burden was a child, she says, she put a pet hamster in a pan and started to cook it. On another occasion, she took her brother's pet turtles, added water to a large pot and began making turtle soup. Little Wendy had a toy guillotine she used to decapitate dolls.
In short, it was clear early on that Burden was either going to become a serial killer or write a book about growing up in an extremely wealthy but uncaring family. She chose the latter, which may not have been the right decision.
I figure it this way: As a serial killer she'll murder what, a half dozen people before she's caught and put away? But who knows how many lives will be affected by "Dead End Gene Pool," the sad and overwhelmingly depressing story of her upbringing?
Wendy is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Her father, William A.M. Burden III, committed suicide when she was very young. Her mother, Leslie, was a free spirit, but in the worst sense of that description. She was promiscuous; her affair with a diplomat may have led to her husband's death. And she was a terrible mother.
Once, Wendy's older brother fell into an ice-cold lake and their mother took him into his room to change him. She came out and told Wendy how surprised she was by the size of his penis. I'm still shaking over that one.
Wendy and her two brothers shuttled between boarding schools, their mother's home and that of her grandparents, William Jr., and Margaret. William ran a very successful advisory business, but he also drank too much, and it's difficult to imagine how he got anything accomplished. He also pretty much ignored Wendy because he saw women as unimportant. On her 18th birthday, she writes, "my grandfather stood up to toast me and forgot my name."
Grandma Margaret, meanwhile, spent most of her time drinking and, uh, expelling gas.
What happened to Wendy? She went to work as a low-level assistant for a couple of publications, was fired from her last job, and did a little coke. She subsequently lived off a trust fund and that's kind of the last we hear about her life. Her bio acknowledges two daughters and says she owns a small French bistro in Portland, Ore. But if there's a happy ending, it would be nice -- heck, it would be a relief -- to know about it.
Clearly this book will remind people of works by Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris, and it is likely to enjoy similar success. Burden has a jaunty writing style that pushes you along even the roughest spots in her life. Sometimes, though, it seems too witty, as though she sacrificed truth for a laugh.
As for me, I walk away thinking that if this is what money does for you, thank goodness I'm poor.