NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Baum On Books

Book Review: The Primates of Park Avenue

primates_pix.jpg

Billed as an anthropological “memoir” of when she recently lived among The Haves, The Have Mores and The Have Mosts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, has generated a huge response in print and online, a lot of it negative. Her creds list a Ph.D. from Yale, but her degree is in comparative literature and cultural studies.

More significant, it’s not clear why, as skeptical readers found out, Martin “telescoped” (her word) certain events that she relied on for her field work among the privileged stay-at-home mommy set where “No one was fat. No one was ugly. No one was poor.”

Martin has a breezy, engaging prose style and can at times deliver zingers with sharp humor. She also cleverly affects a self-effacing candor about enjoying Upper East Side perks. If you can’t beat 'em, join em. She pines for, and gets, that insanely expensive Birkin handbag, and has a closet filled solely with designer shoes. By casting herself in the dubious dual role of critic and participant, however, she forgoes trust and objectivity, especially at the end when the painful loss causes her, too quickly, to re-evaluate her competitive, self-involved, shallow and unfriendly sisters who now express concern. By then, however, she’s on her way to the Upper West Side.

Martin’s publisher says that future editions of this best seller will likely include a note about the author’s admitted “conflation” of certain incidents and unsupported generalizations, including the amount of time Martin says she lived on the Upper East Side, three not the six years she claims.

Such concessions and some data-free generalizations may not appease professional anthropologists or critical readers, but they may inadvertently enhance debate about the current fascination with memoirs, especially those that gobble up gossip about the rich and famous.

Martin’s subject is fascinating in a voyeuristic way, but does it require an anthropological frame- references to the work of primatologists in order to describe and rationalize the rites and rituals of her Upper East Side tribe, Martin calls Primates of Park Avenue a “stranger than fiction” story, and herself “a cultural critic in high heels.” Might the subject have fared better as literature? Think of The Devil Wears Prada. Think also of Jane Austen, who created characters with distinct personalities and didn’t let her heroines succumb to wealth and power in order to criticize the mean-spirited crowd around them, or, like Martin, flirt with an Alpha male in order to break into the charmed circle.

Updated 9/3 11:00 a.m.:

Author Wednesday Martin posted a statement on her website on the book:

"Primates of Park Avenue describes my personal experiences on the Upper East Side both while I lived there and while my children were in programs there over a period of six years.

Potentially identifying details were altered, including some timeframes left unspecified and chronologies adjusted, in order to protect the identities of others and to explore issues by topic.

Simon & Schuster is adding a clarifying note to the ebook and subsequent print editions about this common writing technique."

Related Content