An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, Primates of Park Avenue is an “amusing, perceptive and…deliciously evil” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir of the most secretive and elite tribe—Manhattan’s Upper East Side mothers.
When Wednesday Martin first arrives on New York City’s Upper East Side, she’s clueless about the right addresses, the right wardrobe, and the right schools, and she’s taken aback by the glamorous, sharp-elbowed mommies around her. She feels hazed and unwelcome until she begins to look at her new niche through the lens of her academic background in anthropology. As she analyzes the tribe’s mating and migration patterns, childrearing practices, fetish objects, physical adornment practices, magical purifying rituals, bonding rites, and odd realities like sex segregation, she finds it easier to fit in and even enjoy her new life. Then one day, Wednesday’s world is turned upside down, and she finds out there’s much more to the women who she’s secretly been calling Manhattan Geishas.
“Think Gossip Girl, but with a sociological study of the parents” (InStyle.com), Wednesday’s memoir is absolutely “eye-popping” (People). Primates of Park Avenue lifts a veil on a secret, elite world within a world—the strange, exotic, and utterly foreign and fascinating life of privileged Manhattan motherhood.
Primates of Park Avenue CHAPTER ONE Comme Il Faut Fieldnotes Environment and ecology The island is a geographically, culturally, and politically isolated landmass roughly seven times longer than it is wide. The climate is temperate, with relatively harsh winters and extremely hot and humid summers that, in recent years, approximate tropical conditions due in part to two centuries of intensive land clearing and industrial practices. The island’s longitude is 40°43'42" N, and its latitude is 73°59'39" W.
Island dwellers live in a state of ecological release—resources such as food and water are abundant and easily procured; disease is minimal; there is no predation. Living in a niche characterized by literally unprecedented abundance, untethered from hardship, the wealthiest islanders are able to invest heavily in each and every offspring and to invent elaborate and complex social codes and rites, the observance of which are time-, labor-, and resource-intensive.
In spite of the extraordinary abundance of food, water, and other resources island-wide, there is persistent and marked poverty in some areas. The isolation, extreme population density, and vast discrepancies in wealth, as well as traditionally gender-scripted roles and behaviors around child rearing and work, may inform and in part account for many of the strange-seeming behaviors of the wealthiest island dwellers, discussed in the following pages. Island dwellings The island’s inhabitants are primarily vertical dwellers, making their homes directly on top of one another in structures of finely ground stone. Living in these “vertical villages” allows inhabitants to maximize physical space, a precious commodity in short supply on their tiny and remarkably densely populated island. In some locations, particularly where the wealthiest islanders reside, these vertical villages are notably restrictive, with a secretive “council of elders” presiding over who will and will not be allowed to live there. Scouting out a dwelling is one of the most labor-intensive practices of the female members of the tribe I studied—most often the task is undertaken by primaparas. Almost without exception, “dwelling shamans” guide these women in their quests for homes—which are also quests for identity. The shamans offer specialized knowledge, counsel, and emotional support throughout this costly, protracted, and painstaking initiation process. Geographical origins of islanders Island dwellers have heterogeneous geographical origins. Many dispersed at sexual maturity from their natal groups in distant, smaller, and even rural villages, immigrating to the island for enhanced professional, sexual, and marital prospects. Other island dwellers are indigenous; their status is higher than that of the nonautochthonous residents, particularly if they were raised in certain corners of the island or attended particular “learning huts” while growing up there. Beliefs of and about islanders Whether they are autochthonous or émigrés, island dwellers are believed by outsiders, many visitors, and their countrymen to harbor haughty attitudes about themselves and their island. They are known throughout the land for their brusqueness; intellectual gifts; dazzling adornment practices; and acumen in barter, trade, and negotiation. Increasingly, their trade is in invisible ideas and abstractions, enhancing the sense that they have privileged knowledge and even “magical” powers. The journeys and tribulations of those who move to the island and struggle to succeed there are the stuff of legend, literally—there exists a long oral and written tradition about the supposedly indomitable and unique spirit of people who are able to “make it there.” Once they have established themselves on the island, it is said, they can “make it anywhere.” Resource acquisition and distribution On the whole, the island dwellers are the richest in the entire nation, living untethered from the environmental constraints that have such a profound impact on life-history courses in other habitats worldwide. Obtaining adequate calories for themselves and their children, the main ecological challenge to parents worldwide and throughout our evolutionary prehistory, is a simple given for wealthy island dwellers. However, as in many industrial and postindustrial societies, fathers of the very traditionally gender-scripted tribe I studied tend to focus on the job of provisioning their wives and families with less-tangible resources, including financial, social, and cultural capital. While many island-dwelling females work outside the home, during the childbearing and child-rearing years, many wealthy female islanders believe it is their “role” to remain home with their children, where they are often assisted by alloparents—individuals other than parents who take on parental roles. They call these alloparents “housekeepers,” “nannies,” and “caregivers.” Island organization The island is organized, in the minds of island dwellers, into four quadrants: Up, Down, Right, and Left. The “Up” and “Down” areas are believed to be markedly distinct—with Up being preferable for raising children and Down being considered primarily a place for pre-reproductives, cultural “outsiders,” feasting, and ecstatic nighttime rites. Islanders further divide their island into left and right hemispheres. “Left” and “Right,” like “Up” and “Down,” are believed to have different—even polar opposite—characteristics. Left is believed to be more casual and progressive, in contrast to Right’s perceived formality and conservatism.
This reading group guide for Primates of Park Avenue includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with Wednesday Martin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Wednesday Martin’s new memoir, Primates of Park Avenue, is an inside look at the unexpectedly stressful and anxious lives of Manhattan’s most elite set: Upper East Side mommies.
The book follows Wednesday on her journey to join the “it” crew in Manhattan, and no detail—no matter how trivial or painful—is left out. We read about the feelings of exclusion and unhappiness Wednesday experiences as she learns to navigate the sometimes-cruel streets and female “friendships” west of Lexington Avenue. We hear about her epic quest to own an Hermès Birkin bag and about the cutthroat nature of preschool applications on the Upper East Side. Through it all, Wednesday straddles the line between subjective insider desperate to find a place for herself and her son and academically detached outsider using her background in anthropology and primatology to help make sense of her world, one she realizes might seem silly and unsympathetic from the outside. Wednesday is both participant in and observer of the rituals of motherhood in Manhattan’s richest neighborhood.
1. In her introduction, author Wednesday Martin asks herself “who were they really, these glamorous, stylishly turned out women with sophisticated babies?” (2). Answer Wednesday’s question with your group. Who are the women of the Upper East Side really? Is there an Upper East Side in your town? Did your conception of these women change after reading Primates of Park Avenue? Why or why not?
2. On page 8, Wednesday discusses her strong desire to fit in with the mommies of her new neighborhood, and for her son to fit in by extension. She writes that from her studies in literature and anthropology, she knows that “without a sense of belonging, and actually belonging, we great apes are lost. . . . Particularly female ones . . . do not fare well.” Do you think that all people feel this way to some extent? What about all mothers? Is wanting to fit in and feel a sense of community particularly important for new mothers?
3. Why do you think Wednesday Martin chooses to frame the beginning of her memoir as an academic study? Does the format add humor? Does it give greater credibility to the author? Both? Think about how you would describe your own world anthropologically. Are you part of a tribe? If so, which tribe?
4. Discuss the way gender figures into life on the Upper East Side, according to Primates of Park Avenue. Wednesday writes on page 24 that “in Manhattan, the woman is in charge of finding a place for the family to live.” What else do the women seem “in charge” of in Manhattan? Of what are they decidedly not in charge?
5. “Women on the Upper East Side, particularly women in their thirties and women on the downhill slope of middle age, are utterly attuned to and obsessed with power” (83). Consider this power obsession in connection with Wednesday Martin’s obsession with acquiring a Birkin bag. What is the implicit connection between expensive handbags and power? Does owning a Birkin on the Upper East Side make one more powerful? What is your tribe’s “it” bag? Is it a “fetish object”?
6. Many of the women in Primates of Park Avenue are described as hyper-dedicated, particularly when it comes to their bodies. Describing a workout class in the Hamptons, Wednesday Martin writes that these women, herself included, put themselves through hell “to bond with their fellow tribe members, but also to measure up to, and to take the measure of, others, day by day, evening by evening, event by event, class by class” (129). Does their physical appearance symbolize something intrinsic? Something about their worth? What is the connection between the body and the person, in the case of an Upper East Side mommy?
7. What surprised you the most about Wednesday’s memoir? Which aspect of these women’s lives feels most foreign to you and your life? Which aspects feel more familiar?
8. How does the loss of Wednesday’s unborn daughter, Daphne, change the course of the story? Do you think losing a baby changes her perspective on life—particularly life on the Upper East Side?
9. Compare and contrast Wednesday Martin with her new circle. How are they similar? How do they differ? According to what you’ve read, does Wednesday retain her subjective view of this “tribe,” or does she become too similar to be subjective?
10. “From an anthropological perspective, these wealthy women who seem and are so fortunate are also marooned in their sex-segregated world” (162) writes Wednesday Martin about the marriages she sees all around her in New York City. She describes these so-called arrangements as “fragile and contingent and women are still dependent . . . on their men” (163). Does sex segregation and complete dependence on one’s partner seem strange in the twenty-first century, or do these marriages seem relatively standard? Do you agree with Wednesday that these women are perhaps in a less enviable position than one might assume? Why or why not?
11. Consider the ways in which anxiety is described in Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree that “having too many choices is stressful” (178), or that a luxurious lifestyle ultimately leads to more—not less—unhappiness?
12. Discuss the title of the memoir: Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree, as the title suggests, that these women who live a certain kind of lifestyle on the Upper East Side are really no different than any other women anywhere? Are we all just animals, doing what we can to survive and create the safest, most favorable conditions we can for our families?
13. Primates of Park Avenue is ultimately a testament to the strength of all women to endure the pain that so often accompanies motherhood. In her grief, Wednesday discovers another side of the beautiful, competitive women around her: love. In her time of need, these women came forward and offered emotional support and understanding, bolstering the bond between women of the same tribe who know “just how closely the territories of mothering and loss overlap” (198). Discus this “secret,” as Wednesday coined it, with your group members. Why do you think motherhood, in particular, feels so deeply connected to loss?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In her quest to understand the women with whom she now shares a zip code and way of life, Wednesday Martin plunges into a thoughtful, observant study of Upper East Side mommies, the kind of woman she is fast becoming. In addition to firsthand observation, Wednesday uses her academic background to make sense of the rituals, beliefs, and desires of the classic Upper East Side woman. One source she turns to is literature; on page 100, she finds these women and their desires to be similar to the character Lily Bart and her wishes in Edith Wharton’s classic The House of Mirth. Have a movie night with your group to watch the film adaptation of The House of Mirth (2000). After the movie, discuss how Wednesday and her new crew resemble the character of Lily Bart. Do these women covet luxury items because they want “to be a wanted thing” (100) too?
2. Many of the activities in Primates of Park Avenue are attended by women only, as the Upper East Side is, according to Wednesday Martin, a very sex-segregated society. In light of this, host a Girls’ Night inspired by the one Wednesday attends at her friend Rebecca’s apartment (page 150). Over dinner and drinks, discuss how your party compares with Rebecca’s. Do outfits, accessories, or conversation topics seem drastically different? Do you feel a kinship with the women in the memoir, or do you feel like a member of a totally different species?
3. In chapter 6, Wednesday contemplates the complexity of the relationships between mothers and nannies on the Upper East Side—relationships that can be very familiar for some and terribly foreign for others. In Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday focuses only on the point of view of the mothers, the side of the relationship with which she is most familiar. For the nanny point of view, read The Nanny Diaries with your book club. Do the two books overlap in their consideration of this complicated relationship between mommies and nannies? Ultimately, do you agree with Wednesday that the nanny wields more power than the mom? Why or why not?
A Conversation with Wednesday Martin
Primates of Park Avenue is your second book. Discuss how this project compares with Stepmonster. Was one more difficult or challenging to write than the other? Did you have to be more vulnerable in telling one story over the other, or did both require a certain kind of vulnerability?
Primates of Park Avenue and Stepmonster were both very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science. The difference is that Primates came to me very visually. I “saw” the story, not only as I had experienced it, but as I wanted to tell it. I hope readers can visualize the story and characters as well!
On page 52 you write that on the Upper East Side, “child’s play was apparently a deadly serious business.” Child’s play—like exercise or finding the perfect apartment, the perfect summer home, or the perfect handbag—seems to have heavy stakes attached for Upper East Side women. What strikes you as the most outrageous ritual you observed in this society?
The hiring of black-market Disney guides with access to disability passes so as to bypass lines really did take me by surprise. It said a lot about the pattern of “insider trading” at the heart of many tribal behaviors—I will give you this guide’s number, and it establishes that we are one, we are people who do this. And it speaks to the tribe’s impatience with doing things the way that “everybody else” has to.
Why did you decide to tell this story from a female-only point of view? What is it about motherhood in particular that seems so distinct in this community?
I really had to do it that way. The sex segregation of the tribe I studied is remarkably pronounced. I didn’t have access to the world of men. Men and women have very separate spheres in this tribe, and mixing is frowned upon for all kinds of reasons.
In your introduction, you summarize this memoir as “a consideration of one narrow sliver of motherhood on one tiny island, and a meditation on what it might mean for everyone else” (14). Will you answer your own question for us—what does this sliver of motherhood mean for us? Do you agree that ultimately your book is about the connection between women who are mothers, no matter where they live?
I think of the book as one contribution to the literature of motherhood. The themes that preoccupied me on my “quest” are pretty universal: the desire to be a good mother, to fit in, and to find and enjoy the perks of social support. It’s the quest of every primate, actually. The cultural script of “intensive motherhood”—the belief that you should give every ounce of your energy and every minute of your time to enrich your kids’ lives in every measure—intensifies with income. The richer you are, the more you’re expected to do it. But the expectation that mothers are solely responsible for their children’s well-being and that they do it on their own prevails in most industrialized settings. And it’s really hard on kids and others alike.
You’ve been compared to an urban Dian Fossey and the anthropologist Jane Goodall. Who are some of your female heroes, women you look up to and perhaps channel as you write?
I grew up really admiring Jane Goodall, Margaret Mead, and Gloria Steinem, and I still do. I am a huge fan of the writing of evolutionary biologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. If I met her, I would be utterly starstruck! In very real ways, all of these women remade the world, or established entirely new ways of thinking about it.
Do you agree that loss is a major theme in Primates of Park Avenue? When you write, do you consciously choose themes, or do they arise organically from the writing?
The themes of Primates of Park Avenue—competition, anxiety, female aggression, social support, loss—presented themselves to me as I studied the women around me and mothered alongside them and had coffee with them. And yes, I do think that mothers everywhere, whether they are band foragers or mommies in Scarsdale or Madison or Cleveland, are processing the idea of loss, or of potentially losing a child, much of the time. Sadly, child loss has always been a big part of our experience as a species, and has been woven into human evolution.
Along similar lines, you write on page 198 that part of the “script” for privileged motherhood is the belief that children will follow a certain path: go to school and college, marry, and ,eventually, “bury us.” Why do you suppose that it is these privileged mothers who hold on so strongly to this belief in a set pattern for a life?
It’s what parents everywhere hope for, isn’t it? The tribe I studied is economically privileged in relative and absolute terms, and their rate of infant mortality is lower than those in many places in the world where resources and good prenatal care and medicine are not as accessible. They have come to expect that their children will outlive them. However, that does not shelter them from the realities of loss. Worldwide, being a fetus or a baby is risky, relative to other life stages.
You share so much with readers that is personal; these things must have been painful memories for you to revisit. What was the most difficult part of writing Primates of Park Avenue? Did the act of writing work as a kind of catharsis for you?
Writing the chapter about the loss of my daughter, Daphne, was very sad, but also very helpful for me. It helped me understand and connect with other women who have experienced such losses. It was also surprisingly cathartic to write about the experience of being a playdate pariah. So many women had experienced it and wanted to talk to me about it. That was inspiring.
It seems your quest to obtain a Birkin bag was all-consuming and intense, and you spend an entire chapter describing for us the ins and outs of owning such a coveted item. What does the Birkin bag symbolize for you? Does it carry the same import now that you own it?
I wrote that part of the appeal of a Birkin bag is the “get” itself. Once the thrill of the hunt is done, you are left with a status object made of leather. I learned the hard way that such quests can backfire spectacularly: in my enthusiasm to get a Birkin in order to “play ball” with the other moms, I neglected to consider that it might actually injure me! Two different doctors told me that the bag was the likely cause of the neurological pain that made it hard for me to write!
What news can you share with us about upcoming projects? Do you have plans for a new memoir?
I am now part of the tribe of fiction writers. They are very different from writers of nonfiction (well, at least that’s what writers of nonfiction say). I love inventing a world and plots and characters entirely. It’s very freeing, but I do feel a little crazy when I speak to my husband about what the characters are doing or how they feel or what they think. I mean, c’mon, they’re characters. But I hope readers will enjoy the novel I’m working on. All the sex that the tribe of women I studied are not having, the main character of my novel is!
Wednesday Martin, PhD, has worked as writer and social researcher in New York City for more than two decades. The author of Stepmonster and Primates of Park Avenue, she has appeared on Today, CNN, NPR, NBC News, the BBC Newshour, and Fox News as an expert on step-parenting and parenting issues. She writes for the online edition of Psychology Today and her work has appeared in The New York Times. She was a regular contributor to New York Post’s parenting and lifestyle pages for several years and has written for The Daily Telegraph. Wednesday received her PhD from Yale University and lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.
"Think privileged NYC wives are another species? Martin goes undercover in this dishy memoir and reminds us that we all have something in common."
"Amusing...incisive...a wryly entertaining guide to this rarefied subculture."
– The Economist
"Any population is fair game for anthropological research, so why not the super-rich, super-thin, and oh-so-well-dressed mothers of New York's Upper East Side?... Illuminating and fun."
"I absolutely loved this memoir and could not put it down! It's incredibly clever; Martin uses anthropology to analyze Upper East mothers, and it's astonishingly illuminating. Somehow, Martin manages to be caustically perceptive but also generous, funny, moving, and erudite all at the same time. This is one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time."
– Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package