Let’s just start off by saying, the fact that the front cover has a quote by Amy Chua of all people basically says what you need to know about this book and its author. That is, if the zebra-print pencil skirt and cheetah-print curtain and matching cheetah-print Loubs didn’t already give it away.
Anyway, this book is NUTS! Here’s the good and the bad:
- The writing. Martin’s a pretty accessible, occasionally humorous writer. She’s good with detail and at making you feel what she wants you to feel, whether it be incredulity at the price of a new handbag, heartache over her miscarriage, or vindictiveness when she successfully worms her away into the snobby mom group despite its cliqueyness.
- The gossip. I’d heard this book explored the lives of wealthy Upper East Siders and how different their lives are from the rest of NYC/the country, which interested me as an imported New Yorker, but that description just doesn’t do it justice. It’s more about how life as a wealthy Upper East Side mother is completely unrecognizable from 99.9999% of the world. The women are invariably all thin, blonde, beautiful, and toned, and typically SAHMs despite many of them having attended Ivy Leagues (not to mention typically depressed and on various drugs because their lifestyle is so competitive and oppressing). Their lives are dedicated to their kids instead – from the moment they’re born, the moms try to figure out how to get them into the best toddler music classes, the most prestigious kindergartens, the most elite private schools. In return, their hedge fund/venture capitalist husbands fund all the tuition, vacation, and shopping costs, like 3-week ski vacations in Aspen and $10,000+ Birkin bags, and give their wives year-end “bonuses” based on how well they did – what schools the kid ultimately got into, if she was charming enough of a trophy wife at important dinners, etc. I was SHOOK reading all this, especially the bonuses part. It was like living vicariously through Martin as she navigated this new, horribly elitist and shallow lifestyle; I didn’t like everything I read, but it definitely delivered on the gossip.
- The author. Martin is a pretentious hypocrite. She’d studied anthropology in school so she loosely sets up the book like a field notebook – writing about UES moms as if they were primates (hence the title) and she were David Attenborough “observing them in their natural habitat” (she literally writes this). It’s a cute take at first but gets tiring very quickly. What’s more, she also writes from the POV of a newcomer to the neighborhood and keeps repeating throughout the book that she’s just a nice Midwesterner, so of course all the UES customs and attitudes and snobbishness are foreign to her, and none of the moms want to associate with her because she’s just too friendly and open and not rich enough, poor thing! Like, does she not realize she IS one of these bitchy moms herself? Her husband is a hedge fund guy, she dedicates entire chapters to nabbing a Birkin and buying designer clothing, her kid gets into the most prestigious kindergarten (eye roll), she learns how to look and manipulate like the rest of them. I love a deliciously gossipy memoir as much as the next person, but don’t come in here acting superior and holier-than-thou when you’re an exact copy of the people you write about.
- More on the hypocrisy: It turns out Martin has actually worked with the mother of one of my friends (let’s call her Lisa) for several years now. After I discovered this connection, I asked Lisa about her, and she said Martin is very condescending and, well, bitchy, and also very particular and exacting. What kills me though is that Martin is apparently never around as a mom. Her husband is the one who takes their sons to school/events/extraccuriculars and does most of the household management, and she mainly spends her time socializing and “being a writer”. WHAT?! Martin spends the book narrating how her life, like other UES moms’ lives, revolves around her sons, yet in reality she’s actually absent as a parent. Incredible. (Lisa did note, however, that everyone around Martin is remarkably nice and courteous. Just Martin herself isn’t.)
- The outright lies. A lot of the book’s materials seemed too far-fetched to be true (I mean, wife bonuses?), so I started googling and found this article that confirms that yes, a lot of the book is heavily exaggerated or downright made up. Wife bonuses are a thing, it seems like, but not nearly as prevalent as Martin makes them sound. Vanity Fair also wrote a good article about how UES moms reacted to this book – with a healthy amount of incredulity and skepticism – and I was glad to see that these women, even if extremely privileged, still seem human and not like the caricatures Martin portrays them as.
After finishing, I did ask myself – would I personally want a life like this? Fabulously wealthy, never having to worry about anything money-related, permanently dressed in designer everything, able to buy whatever you want without thinking twice, beautiful and thin and part of the social 0.1%, connections to the some of the most powerful and influential people in the entire world, the feeling of having everything and everyone bow down to you. I don’t think I would, because I’d feel like I was imprisoned in a bejeweled straitjacket inside a gilded cage, but honestly, I’m not sure. I know the “correct” answer is no, of course I wouldn’t give up all my liberties and ability to live life the way I wanted for a life of excessive wealth and privilege – but I can’t fully commit to that. I wish I could live as one of these people for a week or so, just to see what it’s like, and then return to being me.
Why only 2 stars overall? Because while this book was entertaining and I got a glimpse into this ridiculous lifestyle (even if exaggerated), the author herself is just so distasteful to me that that overrules everything else.