Spring Reading Series: DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion Questions

Hello Spring Readers!

This month we’re reading Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt which, according to her website, ‘qualifies her to comment freely on the downward spiral of the blue blood families.’ For anyone interested in the super-rich, this is a fascinating and witty account of growing up surrounded by tremendous wealth, but it’s also a tragic tale of family dysfunction and parental neglect.

We are so fortunate to have Wendy joining us in real time, right here at Books on the Brain, on May 18th at 5 pm PST. If you’ve read Dead End Gene Pool or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Wendy!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burden’s had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

At the heart of the story is Wendy’s glamorous and aloof mother who, after her husband’s suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain- smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book? Was it what you expected?

2. Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3. What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4. In the synopsis it says that Dead End Gene Pool gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different. The rich ARE different, but in what ways are they different? How are they the same?

5. Wendy’s grandparents placed a higher importance on her brother’s education than on hers. Have you experienced that type of inequity in your own family? If so, was the sibling relationship damaged as a result?

6. Do you think Wendy’s mother was essentially ‘bought off’ by the grandparents, bullied into making her children available to them for long stretches of time, over holidays, etc? Or was she just a really neglectful parent?

7. Who do you think was the most influential adult in Wendy’s childhood? In what way?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

8. Wendy almost seemed to raise herself. How did she cope?

9. Often you hear about people who have come into money either through inheritance or the lottery, and blow through it really quickly. They sometimes find the money doesn’t make them any happier. Why do you think unearned money can be so difficult for people to manage?

10. What adjectives would you use to describe this book?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Dead End Gene Pool. Thanks for reading along with us. And don’t forget to join us on May 18th for our discussion with Wendy!

Do you have questions for Wendy? Leave them here in the comments or email me with them and I will pass them along, for her to consider before our discussion.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

9780312370848 Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a brilliant and beautiful novel about a horrific and under-reported event that took place during WWII, the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews in Paris by the French police. Told alternately from Sarah’s point of view in 1942 and that of Julia Jarmond, a modern day American journalist researching the event for it’s 60th anniversary, Ms. de Rosnay seamlessly weaves the two stories together.

At 10, “the girl” has heard her parents whispering anxiously about roundups and camps and arrests, but they haven’t told her anything directly. When the French police come in the middle of the night demanding “Open up! Police! Now!”, she does not understand. She sees it is not the Nazis coming for them and believes they will straighten it all out and come home in a few hours. Her 4 year old brother, terrified, climbs into his hiding place in a long cupboard and the girl, thinking she is protecting him, locks him in and pockets the key, promising him she’ll be back soon. The rest of the family is taken away as neighbors watch, some mocking them, a few standing up for them and demanding to know why.

The girl and her family are taken with thousands of others, mostly women and children, to the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycle track in Paris, as a holding place before boarding buses for concentration camps hours away. They are kept there for days without food, toilet facilities, medical care, or blankets in overcrowded and inhumane conditions before being paraded through town and onto buses- the same town buses they had used to go to school and to the market- and driven away to camps as the Parisians watched. At the camps, first the men are separated from their families. Piece by piece their lives are chipped away. Weeks later, in a gut wrenching scene, the women are brutally and forcibly separated from their children. The adults are taken to Auschwitz and the children, even babies and toddlers, are left to fend for themselves. All this time the girl is consumed with guilt and fear for her brother, who she believes is still locked in the cupboard. She vows to get back to him.

Sarah is called “the girl” in the book until page 132, when she finally begins to feel safe and treated as a person again. I was riveted by Sarah’s chapters, but not as much by Julia’s, the American journalist, although I think interweaving the two was a very effective way to tell this story. We are allowed to see the Parisian’s modern day apathy, their lack of emotion or knowledge of events that took place right in their own city. Julia is stunned to discover a personal connection to the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup. As she unravels family secrets and her story begins to intersect with Sarah’s, her marriage starts to disintegrate. Told in parallel, I found myself racing through Julia’s parts to get back to Sarah. When halfway through the book Sarah’s chapters abruptly end, I was distressed and frustrated, wanting to get back to her story. What had happened to Sarah? It took the rest of the book to find out.

This book is so compelling and I highly recommend it. I love when historical fiction teaches us something new, and this tragic event in Paris was something I’d never heard about. The ending seems a little too perfect and coincidental, but I loved it, and I’ve heard the movie rights have been optioned. I can’t wait to see this story on the big screen.

Our book club was supposed to discuss the book two weeks ago but something came up for our hostess, so we’ll be discussing it tomorrow. I’ll do a book club wrap-up post here in a few days.

Check out my book club’s Q & A with Tatiana de Rosnay HERE.

Discussion questions for Sarah’s Key can be found HERE.

If you’re interested in this subject you might also like The Boy In the Striped Pajamas, reviewed HERE.