Book review: Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

By July 6, 2015Blog, Reviews

An entertaining and unexpectedly familiar memoir of New York’s elite.

It’s been described as “juicy, sexy and bawdy”; as “deliciously evil”; as a whistle-blowing tell-all. But I didn’t find Primates of Park Avenue to be any of those things.

For me, it was startling, worrying and – in parts – unexpectedly familiar. You see, there are bizarre similarities between the ‘olive baboon’ elite of New York’s Upper East Side (UES) and the kugel chimps of Sandton, South Africa. And I grew up on the outermost fringe, but part of the troop nonetheless, of the latter.

Anthropology and primatology

Be that as it may, this post isn’t about me, but about the memoir by Wednesday Martin, whose background in anthropology and primatology helps her to navigate the tribal ‘rules’ of UES mommies who are horribly unfriendly, vomitously wealthy, and all attending the same weird flavour-of-the-moment exercise classes, in the same gear:

“Sure, we all wore the same tight exercise pants, sometimes with lines crisscrossing the derrière, drawing attention to our bottoms in a way that put me in mind of the bright pink estrus displays of nonhuman female primates. Look at me! I’m in heat! our spandex-encased, highlighted bottoms seemed to scream.”

Not just bitchiness and snark

Don’t expect the memoir to be all bitchiness and snark, though. There are ironic field notes, spanning tribal migration patterns, display rituals, physical adornment, mutilation, mating practices and extra-pair copulation. This is good stuff, cleverly delivered and peppered with enough unbelievable detail to remain fascinating.

The UES is a weird place, where parents hire tutors who can teach their hyper-scheduled young how to play with other children. Take it from

“It’s hard to exaggerate the absurdity of rich people in New York…a subculture where it is…important to get your child into the right preschool, [or] they will otherwise never have…a decent life. A trader I met swore that during the…application process for one school, he was asked, of his toddler daughter, ‘What are her aspirations?’”

Not just baboons and chimps

Primates isn’t all about the monkey family, as Martin compares UES family planning to birds’ and female-male interaction to that of mice. And it isn’t all rancour and spite; in fact, she undermines her own status as Judgey McJudgeypants when she ‘goes native’ and acquires both honey-blond highlights and a R100,000 Birkin bag.

Primates also made me think about Western (and my own) parenting, especially where Martin says, quoting anthropologist Meredith Small, that children of our era are “priceless but useless”; valued in the same way other cultures worship ancestors; nurtured by mothers who are not only their children’s principal caregivers, but also those responsible for their wellbeing over the course of their entire lives.

Yikes. Read Primates of Park Avenue. It’ll entertain you and make you think.

*This post originally appeared on

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