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Book Review: Primates of Park Avenue (a memoir with an asterisk)

June 12, 2015

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir
by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
Simon and Schuster
free review copy via Edelweiss

As a fan of social history, and a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I was looking foward to reading this book. (I majored in anthropology in college, mostly because reading ethnographies appealed to my fondness for a well-told tale, along with my intrinsic nosiness and tendency to want to see patterns.) The idea of an anthropological take on the uptown New York “ladies who lunch” also piqued my curiosity. My personal favorite use of anthropological analysis has been to squint at the familiar, and the domestic, and try to figure out its underpinnings as though it were a faraway tribe. And, despite sharing an island with these super-affluent women, I very much see them as a separate, and remote tribe. I was looking forward to this book both as a chance to be a bit voyeuristic into the world of designer handbags (even after reading Martin’s ode to them, I’m not wholly sure I know what a Birkin bag looks like) and blown out hair and cutthroat private preschool admissions and the proscriptions of designer workout wear.

The fact that Martin combined descriptions that satisfied my desire to gawk at the luxe life with anthropological analysis and metaphors drawing connections between these wealthy mommies and the behaviors of primates in the wild made the book even more fun to read. Explaining women’s role in apartment hunting by drawing connections to hunter-gatherer practices, or highlighting similarities between Physique 57 workout classes and tribal initiation rituals (or primate mating displays)…or working to understand the extreme practices of plastic surgery (even, yikes, numbing foot injections to withstand towering, pinching heels) by seeking commentary from a professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology.
I feel the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a combination of a voyeur’s look into the weird world of the super-rich, with decently constructed anthropological metaphors. It whets my appetite to read more anthropology and sociology, and makes me nostalgic for sitting in a classroom and digging into ethnographic texts with my professors’ guidance.

So I had fun with this, and emerged from reading it thoroughly satisfied. It wasn’t deathless prose, and some of the insights could have been communicated with more subtle writing… but I think a lot of her analysis made sense, and her points were laid out clearly, if not always artfully.

But, of course, here’s the thing. Right about when I started reading it, just before its publication date, it turned out, there were “factual errors,” in the book despite her claims of academic rigor, or of sticking to the facts.

I haven’t decided what I think about this. That knowledge, that maybe she wasn’t there as long as she claimed, or that details had been fudged, did not impact my enjoyment of an engrossing read, with descriptions I could just about picture, and analysis I appreciated.

Here’s what I’m left wondering, about the commentary about the book’s truth or not…Why the outrage? It’s mostly a memoir, as in, what she remembers happening, and she’s used her academic knowledge to tease out and question some assumptions about the social structures she described in the text. The narrative was coherent enough to keep me reading, and leave me thinking about my own social world as well as hers.
I think it might be a better idea to remember the importance of accounting for the role personal point of view, and conscious narrative structure play in participant observation and ethnographic narrative, and, of course, memoir.

In my junior year of college, I took a terrific class about anthropology and documentary film. And one of the most important themes of the class was the need to remember that a documentary, seen through the ostensible camera lens of capturing actual events, is just as carefully constructed to tell a story as a fictional screenplay and film.
And why shouldn’t the same be even more true in the medium of text? Details blurred, reconstructed, embellished, lost in translation, even made up, in the transition between actual experience to understood experience, to written text.

Instead of outrage and asking if Primates of Park Avenue got the details wrong, or is faked, or false, or diminished by fudging the details?… let’s ask a better question:
How on earth could we expect it to be an account of objective truth? And why aren’t we taking this critical, questioning view of more stories (news accounts, let’s just say, perhaps) presented as objective, unvarnished truth?

What do you think? Of the book? Of truth and memoir? Of designer handbags? Drop me a line.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 13, 2015 1:07 pm

    I won’t be reading the book, but its premise and subsequent uproar are intriguing. Personal narratives are also in the “I” of the beholder. It sounds like an enervating novel versus a memoir–I expect a series is in the making.

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