When Wednesday Martin moves from New York's West Village to the Upper East Side with her husband and toddler son, her entire life changes. She throws herself into fitting in to what she calls the "haves, have-mores, and have-mosts" culture of her Park Avenue neighborhood, where a person's address can make or break their social interactions. While she has the right neighborhood under her belt, Martin still struggles to make friends for herself and her young son. Even after getting into a "top-tier" preschool (which required a lot more than just an application), they are left out of playdates and rarely spoken to. So Martin, who has a background in anthropology, decides to put those skills to use on her fellow Manhattan mommies in the style of Jane Goodall and the other primate researchers who came before her. She observes and categorizes their actions, drawing similarities between the behavior of Lululemon-clad ladies who lunch with apes and baboons, who she says share a similar hierarchical social structure. Martin's observations are a window into the world of conspicuous consumption, exposing controversial topics like wife bonuses while also providing real insights into the struggles - both relatable and baffling - that the top 1 percent experience.
Though in her commentary Martin often sets herself apart, casting herself as merely an observer, she does admit that in her quest to fit in she "goes native," in anthropological-speak. Martin buys into the culture herself with a fervent pursuit of an expensive and hard- to-get Birkin bag, pricey gym memberships, and vacations in the Hamptons, which yields the lunch invitations and playdates she seeks but make her little better than the peers she often mocks. The book is part cultural study and part love letter to the very economic excess Martin eschews early on, which can be a bit jarring at times. Martin has been criticized for taking liberties with the chronology and characterizations in the book, but she stands by her writing, claiming artistic license. Regardless of the controversy, Primates of Park Avenue remains a captivating look into a lifestyle that few will ever attain—and, after reading Martin's scathing criticisms, few readers will likely want to aspire to.
Reviewed by BA, 07/15. Other reviews by BA.