New York Fashion Cool-Aid™: Book Review

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Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

My first thoughts upon hearing that author and social researcher Wednesday Martin, author of “Stepmonster,” had written a forthcoming book entitled “Primates of Park Avenue,” a memoir of her experience trying to infiltrate “the status-and hierarchy-obsessed tribe” of mommies in the urban jungle of the Upper East Side, was that it would be the flip side to “The Nanny Diaries” (a book Martin actually mentions on page 179) albeit with an anthropological twist. Although it does cover some of the same terrain and observes the same species in its “extreme ecological release” or Island habitat where natural resources are plentiful and there are no predators ie Manhattan and specifically the UES, West of Lex, the story skews a bit more serious than your average breezy beach read. This book is being released on June 2 however I was given an advance press copy for review.

Wednesday Martin

Ms. Martin, originally from a small town in Michigan, was a married mother with one son living in downtown NYC until 9/11 when she and her financier CEO husband decided to move north and east near the “Big Field” (Central Park) and the best “learning huts” (schools). Having previously resided in a town house with a small outdoor garden they were now looking at “vertical villages” (high rise condos and co-ops) and needed a “native informant or guide” to show the way (enter buyer’s broker Inga). Upon being mistaken for her own non-existent “assistant” (many prospective buyers send a scout to do a preliminary search for them) Martin also realized that she needed a better bag and a less casual outfit than her “nerdy hipster” Marc Jacobs get-up which was “all the rage downtown.” Eventually she acclimates for her UES apartment-hunting forays donning a uniform of a “demure sheath dress, Agnes B. or French Sole flats, and the most ladylike bag I owned–no slouchy satchel would do for my errand.”

Map of the Upper East Side
(click on image to see detailed notes)

On bed rest with a difficult second pregnancy when her board interview is scheduled, she decides the term supplicant should replace the word applicant as seven board members march into her bedroom where she greets them in pearls and a jacket on top and pajama bottoms under the covers. Finally ensconced in the desired apartment and zip code, Martin has many more “hazing” and “culture shock” moments. Much like a Stepford wife might chastise herself for forgetting to bake, Martin confesses to having forgotten to apply to nursery school (Insert my screaming face here!) There is much made over her shocking naivete; thinking that one just applies to preschool when everyone knows you must apply at the same time you fill out the birth certificate! Of course, anyone with kids in Manhattan is also aware of the selectivity and exclusivity of any of the “feeder” or on-going preschools and the daunting nature of getting your kid accepted, particularly as an outsider. In the book Martin enlists the help of Inga as well as her sister-in-law who had four teenage children that had previously attended the most sought after program and wrangles entrance to what I’m guessing is the 92nd Street Y. (My guess is based on her reference to a highly publicized “million-dollar donation” being proffered and refused).

Much ink is given to Martin’s description of being a “playdate pariah” on behalf of her son Eliot, as the fellow mommies including the “Queen of Queen Bees” brush her off, ignore her and deny her existence despite her repeated friendly attempts to infiltrate their tribe. Eventually, after being “charged” and forcibly pushed aside on the street by a woman wielding her handbag superiority, she goes “native” and decides that her existence will be confirmed with a talisman of sorts: a Birkin bag. Again, as we all know, one doesn’t just go and purchase a Birkin and Martin goes into great detail about how she obtains hers.

Throughout the book, Martin espouses the Hillary Clinton-esque “It takes a village” theory of child-raising (kids would hang out in multi-age groups and be tended by the older children, extended relatives or even other villagers) which anthropologically is the way primates and even humans used to be fostered. Now there are the “Alloparents” or caregivers that are hired to give a mother a much-needed break. There is much written about the mommies (Manhattan Geishas) strict grooming and maintenance routines as well as a page breaking down the cost to be about $95k per year! Martin addresses the constant stress level felt among the “ultimate nerve-racked nellies” and concludes that “Mothering in a state of ecological release and an honor/shame culture, I was learning, was in many ways a perfect storm for anxiety. Their perfect lives were in fundamental ways the worst thing for these mommies’ minds” she writes.

I will not give away the whole story but suffice it to say that after enduring much hostility, ill treatment, shunning, and general nastiness, Martin finds that a common bond is eventually forged with these women through a shared, gut-wrenching experience. Warning: the book is a fast read but may produce some level of PTSD flashbacks for those who’ve been down a parallel Manhattan avenue, (in my case, not as exclusive as Park and decidedly East of Lex) but have experienced many similar child rearing experiences. Unfortunately, I still have screaming nightmares about those pre-school interview “play-groups” that Martin chronicles here.

In the last chapter, Martin mentions that they now live on the Upper West Side where she rarely feels underdressed and the mommies are more “casual and friendly.”  Does that mean there won’t be a “Carnivores of Columbus Avenue” in her future?

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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