I have the same morbid fascination with this book as I do with the headlines of fashion magazines and tabloids, the kind that makes me avert my head and read from the corner of my eye so that I don’t have to admit that I am reading them to anyone—least of all myself. I am fascinated by my fascination—by the nation’s (historically pervasive) fascination—with beauty, youth, wealth, power, and New York City. I read this memoir on the fabulous fashion-forward heels of “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” an upcoming novel by Melanie Benjamin, and Truman Capote’s infamous, seemingly effortless, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I spent the better part of four days immersed in sixty years of New York’s elite and found Martin’s anthropological approach to the 2000s refreshing (though sometimes affected).
Martin immediately sets herself a part from her subjects. I am the product of Margaret Meade, Mary Leakey, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Jane Goodall, she says (subtext, I am an anthropologist). I am a New York transplant from the Midwest, she says, where “women worked…and there wasn’t always enough money for every single thing you wanted and not everyone had a car and driver,” (subtext, I am one of you). Martin’s ability to straddle both Park Avenue and her Midwest roots is part of her appeal—an everywoman in a wealthywoman’s world.
Martin begins by breaking down the territory: New York City is split into quadrants—right and left, and upper and lower. The lower two quadrants are reserved for for the young, single, and newly-wed (“prebaby”), cultural outliers, and entertainment. The upper two quadrants come with important distinctions: to the right of Central Park is conservative, traditional, and clean while to the left of the park has a laid-back, progressive atmosphere. Moving to the Upper East Side means stepping into designer shoes to run a gauntlet of rules, labels, and rituals that makes for entertaining reading.
In this world, not mine Martin carefully and habitually articulates, simple conversations double as rank-establishing exercises, parenting is a form of insider training, wives are expensive baubles, and husbands are meal tickets. Women get blowouts before giving birth and carry designer bags. (Martin claims she “went native” for a Birkin in a particularly hilarious chapter. She refers to purses as both porn and drugs in the span of just a few pages.)
Tacit rites of passage are built into Upper East Side living: marry well, pass a Co-Op board interview, get your kid into a private school, and practice Mommynomics (attending the appropriate charity luncheons, social and school events). Martin both scoffs at, and explains these rites of passage. She shows empathy for these women who Botox their ability to feel real emotion right out of their faces, and have starved their bodies of estrogen-filled and anxiety-dulling fat-cells while over-activating their stress processes to the point where they are self-medicating with handfuls of pills as though starring in”The Valley of the Dolls.”
This is a lighter read, but one that still gets us in the end—like too much champagne Martin has readers feeling more than they expect. Martin’s anecdotes are funny enough to illicit a chuckle while reading in public—like the time her 2-year-old said “Damn it,” when entering a nursery school inside of a church. They are also universally understood—like the special place in hell she wishes on the school director who stresses out toddlers and their tightly-wound mothers as a power play. Aside from her humor, there is empathy here and some really beautiful comments on motherhood, loss, and friendship: “Motherhood is carved out of death’s territory as much as it is out of the territory of the living.”
Martin shouldn’t have to apologize for working hard in New York, establishing herself as a writer, and falling in love with a successful man who can afford to move them to the Upper East Side. She doesn’t apologize, but she does bend over backwards to reiterate how uncomfortable she is in that world, fascinated but bewildered. To me this shows she is aware of, and sensitive to, class divisions and the unequal distribution of wealth. However, she unintentionally reinforces the outmoded, though still (obviously) very present, class system. Class is a great divide that stretches back into history, beyond even Roman times. Maybe we do need to understand a system to begin dismantling and rebuilding, and maybe Martin, in her own small way, is working from the inside—perhaps she will slowly alter the ecosystem simply by existing there. More likely is that wealth will continue to be unequally distributed, and writers will continue to explore that great chasm because writing is our only real means of trying to understand.