Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Primates of Park Avenue," by Wednesday Martin

“Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir” (Simon and Schuster, 2015) got a lot of attention when it came out a few months ago. Its cover shows the side and legs of a slim-but-curvy woman in a leopard skin skirt and shoes, and that sets the tone. The articles about, and even the reviews of, the book emphasized the most “shocking” aspects of the book, such as its assertion that very rich men on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid their wives bonuses for doing a good job as wives in this hyper-wealthy and competitive area. The book itself is a strange mixture of a memoir, a tell-all, an anthropological study, and a compendium of tabloidish stories. The author, Wednesday Martin, tells us often that she has a PhD and works as a “social researcher.” When she moved from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side because of her husband’s job, she decided to a. fit in as well as she could, for her children’s sake; and b. study the mothers and families in this elite neighborhood as if doing anthropological field work in an alien culture. She tells us about these mothers’ exclusive cliques at the expensive private schools where her children go, how the women exercise obsessively, how they shop and dress, how they spend money, how they decorate, how they socialize, how and where they vacation, and much more. Interspersed among the stories are mini-lectures on the anthropological and primatological aspects of all this, including comparisons to primates (gorillas, etc.) and their societies and customs. There is also some standard-issue (and certainly endorsed by me, albeit going over much-covered territory) feminist analysis of how the women’s high-flown lifestyle was very dependent on their husbands, and how the women had to always be very thin and beautiful and well-dressed. Also included are the author’s own feelings about how she was treated at first (as an outsider) and how she gradually became part of the society, even when she was somewhat horrified by some of the customs. She also openly admits that she had trouble keeping her outsider’s "neutral" research stance, as she began to care very much whether she was accepted by these women. She does have a slightly humorous and self-aware voice, which makes it easier for the reader to connect to her writing. Near the end of the book, we hear about a sad loss she suffered, which takes us readers into a much closer and more sympathetic relationship with her. So the mixture of aspects and sections and perspectives sometimes seems a bit confusing, undigested, and even unnerving, but still oddly intriguing. Throughout, I wondered how much of the book was written for shock value and titillation (“see how these crazy rich people live”), how much out of a genuine academic interest, and how much as the author’s own story and experience (the book is, after all, billed as a memoir). Throughout, I felt the book was aimed at bestsellerdom, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but somewhat compromises the earnestly scholarly tone taken sporadically throughout. It reminds me a bit of an extended Vanity Fair article (and I say this as someone who subscribes to and reads and enjoys Vanity Fair, but who knows to expect a certain type of article, a certain tone). So, to be blunt, the book is a bit of a mishmash, and it seems to me that there is less “there” there than advertised. Nevertheless, the book is entertaining, and has a few mildly interesting insights about gender and social class, served up with many dollops of fashion and bling and a soupcon of scandal.
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