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.
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 :-).
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).
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!).
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.
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.
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!
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.