Can there ever be too much written about the too rich and too thin? Novelists from Edith Wharton to Tom Wolfe have happily fed our seemingly endless appetite for insight into the rarefied world of the one percent. But Wednesday Martin takes it a step further in Primates of Park Avenue, anointing herself a sort of intrepid urban explorer—Jane Goodall infiltrating New York City’s gilded tribe of ruthless, leather-leggings-clad Upper East Side Mommies by bravely becoming one of them.
A Midwestern transplant who believes she’s mastered Manhattan’s social codes after nearly two decades, Martin moves uptown with her husband and toddler to escape the “palpable sadness” of 9/11 and is startled to find that the world approximately a mile and a half north of her West Village town house is “governed by rules, rituals, uniforms, and migration patterns that were entirely new to me, and subtended by beliefs, ambitions, and cultural practices I had never dreamed existed.”
Armed with honey-blond highlights and a Birkin bag in place of binoculars and a pith helmet, Martin throws herself headlong into the business of both studying and becoming a proper Mommy, even as the tribe’s alpha members regard her with suspicion and even outright scorn. She plots, she postulates, she parses the allure of Lululemon stretch pants. Martin’s pose throughout Primates is that her subjects, with their starvation diets, six-figure status symbols, and Xanaxed anxiety, are exotic and often pitiable creatures. But at times the armchair anthropologist doth protest too much: It’s clear that her desire to be accepted is more than academic, or for her sons’ social benefit. The closest the book comes to a sex scene is an orgasmic description of that buttery Birkin (starting price: $8,000)—which her husband pays for, of course; Mommies may have advanced degrees and even independent means, but they don’t buy their own baubles.
Martin does admit that she eventually becomes “less a participant-observer than a participant.” But the book begs for more depth, especially when it mentions, then abandons, intriguing concepts like stay-at-home wives’ “year-end bonuses.” And her repeated use of field studies and primatology as a narrative lens, while intermittently clever, ultimately wears thin—and not the swimming-in-asample-size kind these ladies strive for. B
MEMORABLE LINE “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.”