Wednesday Martin’s “Primates of Park Avenue” – book review

I know that I just published a reading list of things to read this winter and this book is demonstrably not on it. In my defense, I can only say that I felt in the mood for reading Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue.

You do have to be in the mood for it. I’m the kind of person who really enjoys watching Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, and who occasionally gets excited about the life of socialites and the new season’s trends in the glossy magazines. If you are the kind of person who hates all of the activities outlined above, this book is probably not for you.

Wednesday Martin is a writer who did her Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies. Having decided not to work in academia, she taught courses and did some freelance writing – until she got married, had a child and moved to the Upper East Side. Due to the flexible nature of her work, she basically had the time to observe the female inhabitants of the area. But she was not exactly a disinterested observer

I was a baboon… There is no one lower-ranking than a new female in a baboon troop, and if she fails to build a coalition with the mid-level and top females, her life circumstances and those of her offspring can be dire. I knew this: if my son and I were ostracised, that status would be hard to shake as long as we stayed here.

So begins Martin’s endless quest to fit in – from designer clothing, weekly hairdresser visits, fitness classes, and finally her acquisition of a Birkin handbag.

The obsession with designer clothing and an eternally young appearance is emblematic of our culture as a whole, and Martin does her best to defamiliarise these sort of behaviours by comparing them to the behaviour of primates (as in the example above). Her constant quest for approval and the way she justifies it would probably annoy someone less steeped in those cultural values than me. The first half of the book is hilarious, and even though I sometimes find Martin’s comparisons to apes and birds clunky (and perhaps anthropomorphic to a slightly unscientific degree), they are certainly funny.

The scenes Martin describes reminded me most of all of the TV series Gossip Girl, and particularly of Blair Waldorf, the Queen Bee/mean girl par excellence. That said, some of the outfits Martin describes herself and the women wearing strike me as absolutely ghastly. Perhaps that’s very European of me, but it does feel that the Mummies she describes (herself included) are far more trend-driven than style driven. Only that can explain the white trousers with a pink leopard print.

The last third of the book is much sadder. Martin describes the insecurities underlying the lives of the Manhattan trophy wife socialite: from loss of financial status, the husband’s adultery, divorce and most tragically miscarriage or the loss of a child. This is a deeply personal part of the book, as Martin writes about the loss of her child in the sixth month of pregnancy. This section of the book is very much focused on the idea that the glamorous lives of Upper East Siders are not as happy as they seem.

This leaves me in a quandary of sorts. I would like to recommend this book to you as a hilarious guide to the customs of the glamorous women of Upper East Side. But the end of the book is really quite heartbreaking. If you’re seeking a light-hearted analysis of the beautiful and the rich, you might want to stop reading at some point. But if you are happy to read a bittersweet meditation on motherhood and loss in a very fashion-conscious setting, read this book until the end.

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