Nick's Reviews > I am Charlotte Simmons

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
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's review
Jan 18, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: novels
Read in November, 2007

I picked this up at the big garage sale that my work puts on. It caught my eye and I remember being interested in it after reading a review of it when it came out. It's a pretty thick book, over 750 pages, and I didn't plan on reading it for a while. I read the first few chapters when I got home and got very caught up in it. It is one of those books where once you've start reading it, everything else in your life takes a back seat and you can't do anything else but read the book until you're done. Apparently all of Tom Wolfe's books are like that, though I've only read this one. I'll let the New York Times say it better than I can: "Like everything Wolfe writes, 'I Am Charlotte Simmons' grabs your interest at the outset and saps the desire to do anything else until you finish."

The book is basically a critique of the current state of higher education and the university lifestyle. The three main characters are students at a Dupont, a fictional prestigious liberal arts school on the east coast and their lives intersect through various plot threads. The title character, Charlotte, is the fish out of water from a small working-class town in West Virginia. She comes to Dupont full of innocence and ideals and the book is propelled by the story of her inevitable fall from grace and eventual redemption. There is one long extended chapter the book about Charlotte going to the big fraternity formal with her new boyfriend and his friends. Wolfe describes what is happening in real time with great detail (both material and emotional), and the result is an incredible and extremely moving piece of writing. If movies that present prom night as an magical evening where everyone's problems are somehow resolved are a zero on the realism scale, Wolfe's description of Charlotte's experience is an easy 10 .

One of the things that Wolfe does really well is observe the motivations behind people's words and actions, analyzing people in much the same way that a biologist would study the behavior of animals. To Tom Wolfe, every human interaction is a struggle for dominance, and he makes his case convincingly enough particularly when applied to the seemingly simple but incredibly complex social codes of the fraternities and sororities.

Wolfe does stumble occasionally, getting a bit out of his element, particularly when attempting to recreate the dialogue and slang of the black players on the college basketball team. He creates a rapper called Doctor Dis and writes lyrics for his songs in a few cringe-inducing passages. Still, you've got to give an old white guy credit for an attempt. A large part of Wolfe's critique is about class, and the sense of entitlement that well-heeled and well-educated feel. Wolfe lays it on a little too thick in describing Charlotte's humble background, however, and details like Charlotte's family having to use a picnic table inside because they couldn't afford a dining table seemed forced. One final criticism that I'll make is that I though that the end was too neat and sudden. I expected more of a payoff, though I was satisfied enough (if only just to see Charlotte okay again after everything that Wolfe puts her through).

This book got a lot of mixed reviews, and some critics really panned it, seeing it as a one of Wolfe's lesser books. I'm not familiar with his other works and with nothing else to compare it to, I was blown away and completely engrossed. I'd strongly recommend it, though only if you can afford to disappear for a week.

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