Does 'Primates of Park Avenue' Take the Jungle Trope Too Far? Molly's Musings on Summer's Buzziest Beach Read
My friend Molly, a fellow book-obsessed blonde, is responsible for recommending many an excellent book to me [I loved-and wrote about-Her, and am anxiously awaiting my copy of The Sellout in the mail]; it was only natural that she write the next guest review. I've been deliberating whether or not I should read Primates of Park Avenue since it sold out on its release day at my local Barnes & Noble, so I was thrilled when Molly offered to review it! Read on for her thoughts:
Say what you will about Manhattan—its filth, its crowds, its public urination, etc.—but you cannot deny that it is a fascinating conglomeration of different cultures and social archetypes. You have the Yuppies and Hipsters dwelling on the Lower East Side, the Wall Street hotshots in the Financial District, the suffering artists infiltrating West Village Coffee Shops, and of course, Upper East Side well-to-dos.
What first compelled me to read Primates of Park Avenue, an anthropological memoir of a mother raising two boys in the über competitive streets of the UES, was my own introduction and immersion into this unique social atmosphere. After my freshman year of college, I spent a summer nannying for a family that called 88th and Park home. On paper, they certainly fulfilled the criteria about which Wednesday Martin gripes in her book: the father worked at a top-tier investment bank and the mother had a highly successful career of her own. To my surprise, however, I found the families I encountered in Manhattan’s most elite neighborhood not all that different from those I worked for back in Wisconsin or during a summer spent in Nantucket. The UES residents faced the same fears, realities, and challenges—even if they did have added amenities like drivers, staff, and Birkin bags. My point is, I felt Martin’s detailed dissection of her intimidating social circle to be slightly unfair.
Primates of Park Avenue begins by chronicling Martin’s move from lower Manhattan to her new home on the Upper East Side. She elides no detail about the trials and tribulations of finding an apartment and her subsequent transformation into a mother who, once adamant about sending her boys to public school, suddenly craves private schooling, tutors, and high-end designer clothing. I cackled as she satirized women who receive “wife bonuses”, or yearly monetary rewards for being diligent spouses, and delved into her all-encompassing Physique 57 obsession. The book is witty, it’s relatable, and it taps into the ever so fascinating world of the Upper East Side—you can’t help but to be intrigued.
I did, however, find Martin’s memoir to be crassly one-sided; it is hardly a fair “anthropological study” by any standards. She compares these women, many of which are not all that different from herself, to primates living in a prehistoric jungle. At first, the metaphor is clever and entertaining, but it quickly becomes kitschy, bordering on offensive. For starters, it irked me that Martin is, to a tee, the exact portrait of the woman she vilifies. She is thin, blonde, exercise-obsessed, and wants the absolute best for her children. Not to mention, she ends up sending her husband to a whole ‘nother country to procure her a coveted Birkin bag. From a feminist standpoint, I do not agree with her disparaging of other women who, just like her, will stop at no lengths to give their children the best lives imaginable—even if that means hiring a tutor for their nursery school interviews. I fully acknowledge the ridiculousness that accompanies the unimaginable wealth and over the top spending rampant among Upper East Siders, but I do take issue with the undertones of judgment and caricature-ing of other women. Would Martin imbue the same snarkiness had she been chronicling a foreign culture in, let’s say, Western Africa?
She mocks every practice and principle of her new world, from the play date culture to the Botox bonanza, and I must admit, she has some great one-liners; it is definitely worth the read—especially if you are looking for some good beachside entertainment. That said, it’s a piece of literature that you are definitely going to want to take with a grain of salt. If you are looking for a Tolstoy-eque historical piece, then leave Primates of Park Avenue on the shelf.
Ed. Note: those looking for a lighthearted take on the 'Upper East Side' mom should also check out Jill Kargman's hilarious new show, Odd Mom Out. The season finale airs tomorrow.