Skip to main content

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