Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: I am Charlotte Simmons

Title: I am Charlotte Simmons
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 738
Where I Got This Book: Library
Rating: 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:  Tom Wolfe, the master social novelist of our time, the spot-on chronicler of all things contemporary and cultural, presents a sensational new novel about life, love, and learning--or the lack of it--amid today's American colleges.

Our story unfolds at fictional Dupont University: those Olympian halls of scholarship housing the cream of America's youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition . . . Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina. But Charlotte soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the upper-crust coeds of Dupont, sex, cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.

As Charlotte encounters the paragons of Dupont's privileged elite--her roommate, Beverly, a Groton-educated Brahmin in lusty pursuit of lacrosse players; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont's godlike basketball team, whose position is threatened by a hotshot black freshman from the projects; the Young Turk of Saint Ray fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe, whose heady sense of entitlement and social domination is clinched by his accidental brawl with a bodyguard for the governor of California; and Adam Geller, one of the Millennial Mutants who run the university's "independent" newspaper and who consider themselves the last bastion of intellectual endeavor on the sex-crazed, jock-obsessed campus--she is seduced by the heady glamour of acceptance, betraying both her values and upbringing before she grasps the power of being different--and the exotic allure of her own innocence.

With his trademark satirical wit and famously sharp eye for telling detail, Wolfe draws on extensive observations at campuses across the country to immortalize the early-21st-century college-going experience.

My Thoughts: I once read a book memoir where the author encouraged reading books that take place in settings completely different from where you are. If you are visiting your grandparents in Palm Desert, you should bring Smilla's Sense of Snow with you in order to transport yourself away from the arid desert and into a winter wonderland. If you are back home for Thanksgiving Break you should pick up The Crimson Petal and the White so that for a moment you are living in nineteenth century England among noblemen and prostitutes. I am all for this theory of good book reading, but there is something to be said about reading what you know. I enjoy reading books about people and places I feel familiar with.

That is why when I first attended Mount Holyoke College about three years ago, I craved books of the college genre; one book in particular. I could not seem to get my mind off of the Tom Wolfe novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which I had read in high school. I felt close to the title character Charlotte because we were both North Carolina girls from the foothills attending a New England college and attempting to carve out a successful future for ourselves.

During my first couple of weeks at Mount Holyoke every new college experience I had (i.e. unpacking my things in my new dorm, using the communal bathroom, eating in the dining hall) caused my thoughts to turn toward similar scenes in Charlotte Simmons. Each day, my preoccupation with the book got worse and worse until I finally reached a point where I thought enough was enough, and so I walked to the college library to check out the Tom Wolfe novel and began reading it for the second time. It was better than the first time. I could actually relate to Charlotte so much more that time around as a first-year college student trying to adjust to college life. I would read the scene of her unpacking her things in her dorm on the fifth floor and it would strike me that I was also living on the fifth floor of my dorm. I would read about Charlotte’s first time using the coed bathroom (the disgusting scene where two boys are on the toilet making crude bowel noises and boasting about it) and I would suddenly feel very grateful that I had decided to go to a women’s college. In scene after scene, chapter after chapter, I experienced a sense of familiarity that was a blessing to have during that time when I was trying to adjust to new surroundings.

I'm going to be honest and say that Charlotte is not the most likeable character. She's a genius, sure, and I love the fact that she can read a neuroscience book for pleasure, but she is also shallow and judgmental--and a hypocrite.  She feels really upset when people look down on her because of her small-town roots, but she looks down on others because she doesn't think they have anything to offer her, either intellectually or socially, as she tries to climb the ladder of popularity. None of the other characters in the book are too likeable either. There is Charlotte's rich, superficial roommate Beverly, the hot frat boy Hoyt whose callousness and borderline abuse causes Charlotte to suffer a break down in the middle of the year, the geeky journalism student Adam whose high ambitions get the best of him, and then there's Jojo, the dumb student-athlete (or at least he acts dumb in order to protect his reputation among his basketball buddies) who Charlotte ends up using to reach the high rungs of that social ladder.

If you can look past these character flaws, however, this book really gets into something fascinating. I would recommend it to any college-bound/university student. I am Charlotte Simmons is a gem among the rare genre of books with college-aged protagonists.

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