Book Review: I am Charlotte Simmons

book review college Tom Wolfe

It is apparent that Wolfe did a lot of research for this book. His voice is clearly that of an adult looking in, but he captures the college-lingo perfectly. His depictions of how girls interact with one another in their unending quest for social status and boys is remarkably realistic. Frat boys and student-athletes come to life, and each of the four main characters has at least one thing we can all identify with. Their interactions all revolve around their relationship with Charlotte, who herself is undergoing a painful and eye-opening change in her values.

When Charlotte arrives at Dupont, she expects to fully immerse herself in the Life of the Mind, but quickly finds her academic success provides her with zero recognition and in fact compromises her social prospects, just as they did in high school. She is soon primed, through utter lack of real, fulfilling friendships, to undertake some pretty stupid risks to gain the attentions of some boys and thus status among her female friends. All the while, three boys, whose stories are intertwined in various ways, compete for her attention. There's the geek, nerd, and dork, Adam, whose excessive concern and admiration for Charlotte prevent her from ever developing any real attraction towards him; Hoyt, the inconsiderate, vulgar, but irresistible frat boy; and Jojo, the rising star student-athlete whom Charlotte inspires to indulge his academic side to his own detriment.

One thing I was a little surprised by was that I am Charlotte Simmons turned out to be as much a commentary on male-female attraction and social dynamics as it did about college life. Probably college is the peak of this kind of competitive jockeying for position, when guys are constantly trying to establish themselves as dominant and girls are trying to establish their self-worth by attracting guys. Even Charlotte, whose mantra "I am Charlotte Simmons" was meant to hold her outside such petty concerns, eventually succumbs happily to a life in which worth and self-worth is determined by social approval and appearances.

The only problem I had with the book was that a lot of the 'random encounters' seems a little too convenient. The argument would be that the book just happened to be about the story that arose from these chance encounters; if the characters' stories had not become intertwined as they did, no story worth writing would have arisen. To be fair, it made for an intricate, engaging plot, but I felt it was forced. Having gone to a relatively small school, and been at least as anti-social as Charlotte was, it was pushing my suspension of disbelief to accept so many conveniently placed accidental encounters among the characters. The college setting is so realistic while the plot is so dramatic, making these run-ins all the more noticeably convenient.

Wolfe's mastery of language makes this book a pleasure to read just for the sake of following his prose and dialogue. He manages to poke fun at college slang in its excessiveness, while still bringing it across as realistic. His ability to get inside a character's head is genius, and he does a great job of maintaining clarity as far as point-of-view is concerned. His descriptions are eloquent, capturing the feel and atmosphere of a place without weighing down the page with adjectives, and his characters seem very, disturbingly real in their aspirations, self-judgement, and human failings; when Charlotte neglects her academics, that thing that defined her as unique, in order to pursue a boy, we shake our heads, but we understand why she did it and how she got to that point.

Anyone who has gone to college will see a lot of their own experience in this book, whether good or bad. It will make you smile at yourself, nod knowingly, cringe in horrific anticipation, laugh at the freshmen antics knowing you yourself made the same naive mistakes. I am Charlotte Simmons is obviously not a real college story, but it takes everything about freshman college life, magnifies it about ten times, compresses it into one semester, and paints it in almost (but not quite) garishly bright colors. This exaggeration makes for a really enjoyable, really intense, trip back to whatever college campus you might happen to have come from and hopefully, like I did, you will gain some insight into your own college experience. I will definitely be reading more of Tom Wolfe's works.