One of the more annoying books released for the summer reading season is Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, a writer with a doctorate in anthropology. While her writing skills provide her with her own income, her ticket to the lifestyle of the upper 1% is via her marriage. After the arrival of her first child, she and her husband move from their townhouse in funkier downtown Manhattan to the culturally distinct uber-rich haunts of the Upper East Side because, she tells us, it is a better area for kids. There she faces culture shock and exclusion by the women who dominate the area’s social scene. While struggling to fit in (for the sake of the offspring, of course), she begins her research for what would become Primates of Park Avenue.
Complete with “field notes,” Martin describes her new Upper East Side tribe as though she were an anthropologist observing chimps or baboons. I called the book annoying, but not because Martin is rich. May she enjoy her fortune in good health. I did so because a lament about how hard it is to be and live among the rich is inherently sigh-inducing for the rest of us. Despite being irksome, the book has value – perhaps in some ways that were unintended – for its peek inside a tiny subset of society that has a cultural impact far beyond its numbers. The presentation of her memoir as a primate study is gimmicky but not entirely without merit. A pop culture reference she makes herself, however, is as apt in describing her experiences as anything in her field notes: Mean Girls.
She tells us about “going native” (always a risk for field anthropologists) and about the importance of displaying tribal tokens, such as a Birkin bag, which she felt she so needed in order to fit in. Wisely, she doesn’t mention the price, but a look online shows they sell for five-figures and six-figures. At the time there was a three year waiting list for a bag unless you had connections. At one point she does add up the basic cost of her personal maintenance including seasonal fashions – don’t ask. All this was necessary, we are told, to get her child in the right schools and to get playdates with the right people, especially since as a newcomer she was low in the hierarchy. She tells us that, for all their lavish expenditures, the women – who overwhelming rely on their husbands’ money or on parents’ money even if they have careers – nonetheless live in fear that it all could end with divorce or disinheritance. I believe this, but, I must add, this is not unique to Upper East Side females. Anyone anywhere with any property – even (maybe especially) a very modest amount – lives in fear of losing it, whether to divorce or other events; this is every bit as true of men as of women.
While much of her analysis is credible, when she encounters some unexpected kindnesses after a personal loss, she cites anthropologist James Rilling’s view that cooperation is the natural primate bias “that can only be overcome with effortful cognitive control.” Martin says, “In other words, caring is our first impulse; only our minds stand in the way of doing so every time.” This is an astonishing conclusion that, however pleasant and PC, is contradicted by her own tales of fierce mean-spirited hierarchical competition, much of it plainly from the heart more than the head, not only among Upper East Siders but among the chimps and baboons to which she compares them. If anything, exchanges of favors and cooperative grooming are more often calculated than is aggression. It is a false opposition, really. Social animals must do both: compete (with insiders and with outsiders, in different ways) yet cooperate enough to maintain the group. Sympathy and rivalry are both natural. Both are needed for survival. Either alone will doom a chimp or a human. The very last tale in Martin’s book helps underscore this: it is one of minor but satisfying social revenge.
Whatever its flaws, Primates of Park Avenue is worth a read.