In her down-to-earth debut, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt offers an insider’s view of growing up in an old-money family rich with dysfunction.
Burden and her brothers, “for all intents and purposes” parentless, were reared under the less-than-watchful eyes of hired help and her grandparents. The author’s jokes about her grandmother’s digestive system aren’t funny enough to merit their frequency, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a narrator whose girlhood was so bereft of discipline and affection. She describes her grandmother as dependent on Percocet and Dubonnet, and both grandparents as heavy drinkers living in their own private reality. After her alcoholic, anorexic mother remarried—to Burden’s late-father’s best friend, an arms dealer—the unhappy family relocated to Virginia. A move to suburban England followed, where the author’s “pretty much friendless” teenage years were peppered with bizarre experiences like her mother giving her birth-control pills at age 14. After her grandfather flew her to Paris on the Concorde to celebrate her 16th birthday, “things in Burdenland spiraled downward faster than you can say amphetamine psychosis,” and her life was marked by her grandfather’s increased drinking and her little brother’s suicidal tendencies, drug addiction and conviction that he was the reincarnation of their father. The author’s unwavering determination to view her memories through a humorous lens pays off in her total lack of self-pity, but she occasionally comes across as glib and perhaps unable to look too closely at the root of her family’s pain. Consequently, her unique experiences are often merely entertaining instead of affecting.
Engaging but uneven.