Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

You should never draw conclusions about a book you have not yet read based on the sound bites from morning infotainment shows. If I had relied on morning show blurbs to summarize Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, I would have thought it was all about wife bonuses. In actuality, “wife bonuses” are mentioned in one paragraph on one page of a 242-page book (page 161 to be exact). (Sparked by the publicity of the “wife bonus” in the book, here is one woman’s version of how this plays out for her.)

I have now read all of the other paragraphs on all of the other 242 pages. I read the book because a friend plans to read it and discuss, so I invited myself along for the discussion and rapidly read the book while on vacation.

I found myself skeptical, entertained, and bereft.

Skeptical

The author presents the book as an academically/sociologically based analysis of life among the female spouses of ultra-wealthy Upper East Side Manhattan men who could claim to be part of the “1%.”

I will be the first to say I have never traveled in the circles of that 1%. My handbags usually come from Target, as opposed to Hermès. In my thirty-four months in New York City, I relied on my feet or mass transit to get me from Point A to Point B rather than car services. I do not doubt the degree of excess the author describes in this book, but I doubt that anyone who is part of that world will ever willingly participate in publicizing the specifics.I am skeptical that the particular excesses the author chose to highlight really represent that world accurately.

I also must mention the discussions of exercise classes at Physique 57 and SoulCycle. The author uses these two examples of cultish “subtribes” to demonstrate how the Primates of Park Avenue subject themselves to “grueling group endurance rites” in order to maintain their appearance. Again, I have never been part of that world but have observed the following in Manhattan:

1) When I took step aerobics there in the early 90s, everything about the classes I participated in was tightly structured. When you walked in, you had to sign up for a spot, and if you were “spot 35,” you didn’t want to wander into spot 36’s bubble. But that comes with the territory of how space is regulated in Manhattan; it is always at a premium and you just learn to deal. It wasn’t that business’s way of being elitist.

2) While I have only taken one SoulCycle class ever, it was on the Upper East Side. It was a great experience, but I have a hard time seeing how the environment I experienced there would ever transmute into one where we participants “hooted like subversive rappers and called one another ‘thug’.” (And it must be noted I was wearing tights from Marshall’s that I had bought on clearance …… at a SoulCycle Class …… on the Upper East Side. Just call me blasphemous :-).

Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

That time I wore Marshall’s instead of Lulu to SoulCycle!

My skepticism is bolstered by the fact that the publisher appended future editions of the book following The New York Post’s fact checking (which had at least one inaccuracy of its own) to clarify the fact that some of the memoir’s details and chronologies had been changed (read more about the fact checking and subsequent changes here).

Entertained

Once I shifted the book in my head from “non-fiction” to “possibly revised piece of writing based on the author’s interpretation of events,” I was able to just revel in the New York-ness of it all! New York City is my favorite place, my “happy place,” and the almost-three-years I spent there were life changers in every way. Although the New York City the author described apparently took place in expensive luxury abodes protected by building staff from mortals like the rest of us, I managed to see glimpses of it. I saw the nannies pushing babies/children around in their expensive strollers; I saw the opulent furs and jewelry; I saw hints of a lifestyle worlds apart from my own. Ironically, the building where I rented a room (with my own bathroom, which was a BIG DEAL in late 80s New York City), had a manned elevator, with a staff person who operated the elevator to my apartment on the 17th floor. (That worked out great except for the time I arrived home from a trip, suitcase in hand, to learn that the workers were all on strike. That was a long trip up 17 flights of stairs, suitcase in hand!).

Bereft

NOTE: There is a little bit of a spoiler in the next paragraph. Although the book is not a suspense/mystery, I did not anticipate this part at all, having only heard about the “mommy bonus” prior to reading it.

A critical shift in the author’s relationships with her Upper East Side peers occurred when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant at the age of 43.

At first, she was going to abort the baby, then she decided she wanted to keep the baby. At around six months of gestation, the fetus developed severe issues that resulted in the author having a surgical procedure to remove it (I assume a D&C type of procedure) and proceeding to grieve the loss of her daughter.

In the course of grieving this loss, she discovered that some of the women who had previously been the most cold and haughty turned out to be warm, supportive, and empathic.

This chapter threw me into so many emotions, many not because of the author but because of the topic. My third and fourth pregnancies ended when the embryos failed to develop, resulting in D&C procedures to end the pregnancies. Future efforts to have a third child ended when my body (surprise!) decided to go into menopause at age 43. Therefore, this is a complex topic for me.

While of course I support a woman’s right to choose, I would be lying if I didn’t share that my absolute first thought was, “but she was so LUCKY to get pregnant at 43,” and to be sad that she was going to end it.

Then I cheered her on as she decided to keep the baby, who she was going to name Daphne, and I grieved with her as she went through the agonizing medical procedures related to the way the pregnancy ended, and the even deeper agony of dealing with her emotions. Having post-pregnancy hormones without the compensating joy of a newborn is like being on an emotional tightwire, for sure. I don’t envy any woman who has to do that.

As she noted, when something like this happens to you, people come out of the woodwork who previously had appeared to have perfect lives. You find allies you would not have anticipated, and you learn to cut others a break. That part of the book I loved.

Final Thoughts

I have such a mixture of emotions/thoughts about this book; some of them don’t fit into the Entertained/Skeptical/Bereft trio:

Here’s the thing: I struggled with the whole premise. The author and her husband wanted to move to the Upper East Side from the Village because they felt so committed to public schooling for their child, who was still an infant, that they “wanted to be in the best school district.” Given that the next chapter was dedicated to her total panic that he wasn’t registered for a prestigious preschool yet, and the reference to the fact that these preschools were critical to getting into the right private schools, I felt disconnect about that from the get-go.

First of all, as a public school product, married to another public school product, who successfully raised one public school graduate who is navigating college successfully and who is quasi-successfully raising a public school eleventh-grader (fingers crossed on that one), there are many more decent public schools in this country than the one in the 10021 zip code. MANY. Then she ends the book by saying (and I am paraphrasing) “well, the boys ended up getting accepted to schools on the Upper West Side so we moved there” which left me wondering “then why the heck did you go through all those contortions (not to mention the outlay of so many millions of dollars and all the emotional trauma of getting “charged” (see page 80) by these ‘primates’)”?

The author writes, “If childhood is unusual here, motherhood is beyond bizarre. I learned firsthand about the “gets” that define life for the privileged and perfect women with children I lived among.”

Although I may crave the occasional splurge and have never had exactly what I dreamed about in the way of wardrobe or ability to travel, I know the “gets” I received from almost three years in NYC had everything to do with what I saw and learned mixing with all kinds of people, in all kinds of places … these “gets” cost no more than the willingness to walk city block after city block or buy a bus or subway token. Something tells me those were the best “gets” of all.

Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

An image from my March 2015 visit to NYC.

Writing a book review was one of the prompt options for this week’s linkup at Mama’s Losin’ It. I’ll be linking up … would you like to join? Here are the other prompts, and the linky will be up early on Thursday, July 9!

1. List 7 things you’d rather be doing this summer.
2. Write a blog post inspired by the word: challenge.
3. Book review!
4. How is Summer Vacation different for your kids than it was for you growing up?
5. Take us somewhere local spot in your city and show us what we’re missing…you’ll be saving us thousands of dollars now that we won’t need to take that trip!

Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.

16 thoughts on “Primates of Park Avenue: A Review

  1. I had never heard of this book until I read your post but a quick google search and I see that there is a lot of hub bub about it considering it appears relatively new I’ve never really “been” to New York (other than the few times I’ve traveled through. However I find the city to be fascinating from what I’ve seen on TV, specifically Law & Order and CSI: NY. I’m sure parts of it are exaggerated but the lights of Broadway, public transport, and Central Park really intrigued this Midwestern born in a small town where everyone knows your name.

    • Oh Moe —— I hope you have a chance to go to NYC and enjoy it sometime!!!!!!! There’s really no place like it; it has an energy that’s almost impossible to describe. Setting aside this book and the hub bub, I will say: going there having spent almost all of my life as a southerner, at first everything I had been told about the City seemed true …. that people are abrupt and can seem uncaring. What I found, though, after spending some time there, is that there is a great deal of caring and compassion — when you visit the same vendors over and over, and everyone develops a familiarity with each other, there truly is personal warmth. You just have to peck away at the outer “hard shell” a little bit.

  2. Hi Paula. Insightful review. I’m glad the tale wound up having some redeeming qualities. I don’t care about the wife bonus but I care that she has some kind of emotional support in her life. It’s gotta be difficult being young and rich. Sarcasm aside I’m kinda serious.

    • Thx for your comment, Pam. I really value your opinion. If you ever venture forth to tackle “the tale,” let me know what you think. (And am I ever happy my toddlers never had to “pass” an interview of any kind whatsoever!).

  3. I’m verging on feeling as though I should be embarrassed – – but I’m not embarrassed at all 🙂 this is next on my list and I’m calling it research. I’m eager to check it out.

    • Don’t feel embarrassed (and I hope my post didn’t contribute to that). I wasn’t a huge fan of her attempt to merge the “academic” with the, um, “materialistic” but it was still an interesting read! Let me know what you think.

    • Carol, I think “vague curiosity” is definitely warranted, and I’d be interested in your opinion (and your husband’s input if he cares to share). While I don’t doubt that a good portion of it is true (and to a certain extent, if you are uber wealthy you are entitled to spend as you please), I still sort of come from the school of thought that the truly wealthy (and classy) don’t flaunt it — and wouldn’t be caught dead talking about it in a book like this. Guess time will tell! 🙂

  4. As a girl who grew up in Queens by way of the Philippines and then moved on to the south, I saw first hand what the Park Avenue life was like through my aunt who happened to be a nanny to two children of the 1%. I remember visiting her the first time and thinking, “My God, this toilet paper could provide education for a child back in the Philippines!” I exaggerate but not really. THanks for the review, you helped me make a decision to not read the book. I’m sure those women have their own sets of struggles, but it’s hard for me to relate because aside from the emotional struggles, I wouldn’t have the patience to read through the others knowing, again, that their toilet paper could provide an education to a child.

    • Thank you for your comment, Dee. A friend who goes to Chicago Soul Cycle verified that sometimes it can be the way the author represented it (with the quasi-rapper/thug life vocabulary etc) so I guess it was unfair for me to draw a conclusion based on one class (it was also very early in the morning so probably not prime time fro this population). I can only image the excesses your aunt saw.

    • You’re welcome I guess (I only say it that way b/c people said the same thing after reading my review of Lean In — that I convinced them NOT to read it)! Anyway – yes – the pregnancy issues caught me totally by surprise and I felt for her there — 110%.

  5. Wow, it’s almost like the book doesn’t really set you up to feel emotionally connected and then pow…the pregnancy and loss shifted the whole thing. Very interesting!

    • PRECISELY! The “pow” is exactly what I meant. Exactly. (That aside, ALL of the discrepancies and inaccuracies really bug me – either make it a piece of fiction based on real life or pay close attention to getting the details right.) If you ever read it, let me know what you think.

  6. OK. I finally finished the book and I agree with most of what you say here. I would add that I didn’t like the way she approached the writing. I would have preferred it be fiction based on her experience. Like you, though, I was waiting for the bonuses and was pretty disappointed not to get more of that. The segregation of sexes blew my mind. I wouldn’t want to go to a fancy dinner without Kelly and our male friends! I also thought she came across a little above it all…such as “my husband and I would never do that!” even though she was clearly doing all of it.

    Now…the tough part for me.

    A LOT of what she describes is what I experience in Chicago. The only difference is we’re Midwestern so we’re nicer and there isn’t really a Queen Bee of the Bees. BUT. Getting into PUBLIC school is ridiculously hard. If you don’t put your kids in the right preschool, which feeds from the right daycare, you’re not getting them in the few good public schools. And if your kid is talented and gifted? You compete with thousands of other kids for maybe 100 spots.

    So it’s super competitive and very cutthroat. We live across the street from the best elementary school in Illinois (they named it so last year) and now developers are knocking down the houses that have been there since the late 1800s to build $3-$5MM monstrosities that have zero character. If we sold our house to a developer to knock it down, there is no way we could afford to live in that neighborhood. So we’re holding on tightly, just for the school.

    There is a Lululemon two blocks from my house and ALL of the moms wear it (OK, I do, too). There also is a SoulCycle four blocks away and I’ll admit that what she described is absolutely true. You can always tell the newcomers or tourists because they’re come and ride, but don’t have the gear or use the lingo. That said, it’s great exercise and I highly recommend it.

    When she talked about the moms who took prescription medication or drank through their issues, I cringed. I would say 90 percent of my friends do this. I can think of only one close friend in my group who does not (other than me). The other difference is my network of women are highly educated AND they work, unlike the Upper East Side moms. But that could be just because I work. I imagine there is a whole different group of women who stay home with their kids.

    It hit really close to home and made me a bit uncomfortable. I also sobbed during the abortion/pregnancy/losing the baby chapter. Heartbreaking.

    • As you know, I value your opinion and definitely am interested in the window into the scene in Chicago. I am glad you prompted me to read it!

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