Primates of Park Avenue is a glimpse into the life of the privileged mothers of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s weird, otherworldly, and off-putting, at first, but then as Wednesday struggled more and more to fit in and, ultimately, thrive, I found myself cheering for her. I can see how this book isn’t for everyone though. If you don’t like reality television or the details of petty power plays between ridiculously rich socialites, you may want to read another memoir.
As a mother myself, I was thanking my lucky stars as I turned every page that I didn’t happen to end up in New York City. I wouldn’t want that type of pressure on me: to look a certain way, act a certain way, or make my family act a certain way. I can’t imagine that it would ever make me happy and I’m surprised that Wednesday managed as well as she did and emerge, for the most part, unscathed.
The author’s reason for writing: “This book is the stranger-than-fiction story of what I discovered when i made an academic experiment of studying Manhattan motherhood as I lived it. It is the story of a world within a world, a description I do not use lightly.” pg 18, ebook
The “world in a bubble” that is Manhattan: “…many of us live unconstrained by our environment in unprecedented ways. But nowhere, I considered as I walked from here to there every day, foraging for crisp Frette sheets and shiny All-Clad pots and pans and the perfect sconces, are we as radically and comprehensively released as on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the land of gigantic, lusciously red strawberries at Dean & Deluca and snug, tidy Barbour jackets and precious, pristine pastries in exquisite little pastry shops on spotless, sedate side streets. Everything was so honeyed and moneyed and immaculate that it made me dizzy sometimes.” pgs 77-78, ebook
Wednesday forgets to register her child for nursery school and has to scramble and beg to even get applications to the Upper East Side Schools because, if she doesn’t, she isn’t living up to the expectations of her peers:“Thus began my disorienting slide from bystander to total buy-in: with fear. I had been seized by the culturally specific and culturally universal anxiety of not being a good enough mommy, of being a mommy who does less than enough for her children.” pg 90, ebook. The thing is, in my experience, all mothers deal with that fear. Most of us are just fortunate enough to be in a place that doesn’t put a social magnifying glass on it.
My favorite part- Wednesday decides to get a Hermes Birkin bag to stop women from “charging” (crowding) her on the Manhattan sidewalks: “Like a totem object, I believed, it might protect me from them, these ladies who were everywhere in my adopted habitat and who said so much without a word, using only their eyes and their faces and, always, their handbags. Perhaps, I thought, a nice purse like the ones they had might trick them, mesmerize them into believing that they oughtn’t challenge me to sidewalk duels and all the rest.” pg 132, ebook. Never underestimate the power of a really nice bag…
The most disturbing part, for me, was the reliance of all of these women on their husbands: “…with resources under their control, with wives who are dependent on them caring for their even more dependent offspring, privileged men of the Upper East Side can do as they please. Men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and they may act like true partners. But this arrangement is fragile and contingent and women are still dependent, in this instance, on their men- a husband may simply ignore his commitment at any time. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But the comparative study of human society and our primate relatives shows that such access can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns it. And knowing this, or even having an inkling of it, just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates your version of power from your man’s, could keep a thinking woman up at night.” pg 241, ebook That really bothered me.
Wednesday ties up the memoir with a heartbreaking chapter from her own life. I won’t spoil it for readers, other than to say, that I found it very difficult to get through. Primates of Park Avenue seems like a frothy and frivolous bit of writing about women who already have so much privilege that their lives didn’t need the examination, but then I realized, that universal problems like gender inequality and becoming a part of the group transcend culture, time, and place. If you’re looking for more books on these sorts of social questions, you may want to read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg or Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Ownby Kate Bolick.
Thanks for reading!