In the 2004 classic film, “Mean Girls,” Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady enrolls at a new high school where she has no friends and doesn’t understand the local culture. Her parents are anthropologists so she uses what she’s learned from them to watch those around her, masking her loneliness with observations about teens and their bizarre practices. Until, of course, she becomes one of them.
Wednesday Martin, the author of the much-discussed memoir “Primates of Park Avenue¸” follows almost the exact same pattern, chronicling with anthropological language her move from the West Village to the Upper East Side and the special breed of mommies she encounters there. In the beginning, she faces culture shock (which in itself is ridiculous; it’s not as if the West Village, home of some of the wealthiest people in the city, is a normal place) and then slowly but surely “goes native” and starts adopting the behavior of her subjects.
Yet despite all the attention the book has received about its shocking details (wife bonuses!) and even juicier inaccuracies (Martin wasn’t pregnant when she was house-hunting), the most shocking aspect of “Primates of Park Avenue” is how un-shocking it is.
In Martin’s book, housewives on the Upper East Side eat too little, drink too much, get Botox all the time, depend on their husbands for money and are hyper-competitive about their children. As far as tell-alls go, it’s pretty tame. All of this has been covered many times before in books and shows like “The Nanny Diaries” and the hugely popular “Gossip Girl” series (not to mention “Bonfire of the Vanities,” though that was perhaps more a commentary on Park Avenue men). “Primates” offers nothing really new to this genre and the fact that Martin expects us to be wowed by what she is sharing makes her seem a bit naïve.
Surprise, surprise, money does not make these women happy, and Martin spends a lot of time describing the various ways they handle their anxiety, including this extended list: “alcohol; prescription drugs; ‘flyaway parties’ with girlfriends to Vegas, St. Barths, and Paris on their private planes; compulsive exercise and self-care (Flywheel, bone broth, and raw, organic, cold-pressed juice fasts are big); jaw-dropping clothing and accessory purchases (‘presale’ is a verb, and dropping $10,000 at Bergdorf Goodman or Barneys in a day is not necessarily a huge deal).”
For all the descriptions of what these women do, however, what is missing from “Primates” is in-depth analysis of who these women actually are. Martin does not introduce us in any meaningful way to her subjects or, indeed, to anyone at all. Names crop up merely to move action along — her friend pops an Ativan at lunch, her husband buys her a Birkin bag, her son cries when another mom says he has a “bad birthday.” The only character Martin gives us is herself, and while the incidents that happen to her are sometimes amusing, they aren’t enough to hold a story — let alone a book — together.