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I Am Charlotte Simmons


I Am Charlotte Simmons

I realized just a few chapters into I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS why it
should be another bestseller for legendary Tom Wolfe. Most of this
doorstop of a book (676 pages) takes place on the campus of
fictional Dupont College, a mid-size, baby ivy, basketball
powerhouse located just west of Philly (can you say Villanova?).
Its broad cast of characters includes all the usual college
stereotypes --- dumb jocks, church mouse poor pizza delivering
geniuses, boarding school born and to the manor bred Paris
Hilton-types, holier-than-thou professors, winning coaches, etc.
His female protagonist, Charlotte Simmons, hails from a tiny
mountain town in Western North Carolina, and while some of her
backwoods ways are a bit clichéd, her lack of current fashion
or culture sense is utterly believable. Wolfe has a variety of
plots, subplots, and even counter subplots going on amidst a
background of heavy-duty college excess. The irrefutable fact that
will propel it to the bestseller list is that everyone is going to
find a character at Dupont College to whom they can totally relate
and commiserate with.

Charlotte Simmons is a very naïve, extremely smart mountain
girl whose intellect and consequent “prizes” (a perfect
SAT score, Presidential Scholar award, and full scholarship to
elite Dupont College) have elevated her to an academic plane her
backwoods family and friends cannot even see. They hold her in awe
(with the exception of a few good ole boy classmates) and send her
on her college journey with plenty of emotional baggage that she
still is innocent enough to believe she can carry. Besides her
parents, little brothers, cousins, and neighbors who are trusting
that she will do great things with her time at Dupont, there is
Miss Pennington, the teacher/mentor who has aided and abetted her
quest for “a life of the mind.” Charlotte cannot let
her down, no matter what.

Charlotte arrives at Dupont with great hopes and aspirations. It is
on this beautiful campus that Wolfe introduces the rest of the
cast, all of whom will somehow color Charlotte’s experience
--- and will quickly find themselves mired in dirty messes of their
own making. Ideals are sacrificed, rules broken and, make no
mistake, lots and lots of beers chugged and panties raided.
Wolfe’s research for this book has been widely touted, and I
must say it is evident. He came away with a very clear picture of
what college life today is really like, despite what most parents
would like to believe. Charlotte’s tentative foray into the
college social scene, and subsequent triumphs and failures, could
have been scripted from my own college days almost twenty years
ago. It wasn’t all good or all bad, and it was difficult
taking control of the chaos, no matter how hard you tried.

Most of the primary actors, even the good guys, in this drama are
begging to be reviled. With a few exceptions, however, most of the
major and minor characters end up redeeming themselves and
therefore kept me from utterly despising them. Many of
Charlotte’s mannerisms (including her speech) and her
priggish attitude towards the many fellow students she considers
below her should be enough for the reader to start hoping she gets
her comeuppance. But when she does get her “due,” her
initiation to a life that is NOT of the mind, it is difficult to
feel anything but genuine pain and empathy for an academically
learned yet worldly dumb eighteen-year-old. It never ceases to
amaze me that the very college walls we turn to for higher learning
should consistently render out, alongside with its diplomatic
“tickets to adulthood,” such utter and complete
betrayal of one’s youth.

You don’t need to have had any college experiences to enjoy
Charlotte Simmons; the same dramas unfold on many larger high
school campuses, I’m sure. This novel offers a realistic,
unabashed, and therefore extremely unglamorous look at modern
college life. Certain parts will make you cringe with embarrassed
recognition and others will seem downright distasteful. But
I’ll bet you one thing --- like me, you won’t be able
to put it down and will be turning page after page right up to its
conclusion, where Charlotte Simmons ends up in a role we never
could have imagined her playing. Bravo, Mr. Wolfe.

Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 22, 2011

I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374281580
  • ISBN-13: 9780374281588