05 June 2007
book review: i am charlotte simmons

I'm way behind on keeping you up to date on what I've been reading--in fact, I have yet to do even one book review despite having read a new favorite recently.

Unfortunately for this review, though, that one was not
I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, but I have an order to maintain, and you'll have to stay tuned for the book I truly love.

I am Charlotte Simmons; Tom Wolfe; ISBN-13: 978-031242442; Picador; Reprint edition (August 11, 2005); paperback; 752 pp.

I started. And stopped. And repeated that pattern since December until yesterday when I was so happy to close that 700-plus page tome once and for all.

Now let me start by saying that I didn't hate this book about a young country girl's adjustment to big time university life. There's a lot of wonderful, raw truth in there with which I identified, so Wolfe does get something right, even if his attempts at using college slang gets annoying after a page or so. He also paints a pretty decent picture of major college sports--up to a point, which I'll get to in a bit.

In many ways, I was Charlotte Simmons about 10 years ago (OK, a little more than that). I, too, was the valedictorian of my small time public high school located in the mountains--ironically enough, my mountains were in Pennsylvania and I went to an elite university in North Carolina whereas Charlotte's journey takes her in the reverse direction, from North Carolina to Pennsylvania.

Like fictional Dupont University, my own Duke University is a big name, academically rigorous, athletics-loving (especially basketball) school where many students' trust funds are worth more than all I've made in my lifetime up until now. While I was there, I shared the campus with children and grandchildren of United States Presidents and Vice Presidents and my freshman dorm with a couple of guys who eventually became Sports Illustrated fodder.

Does Wolfe capture the feel of such a campus? Does he put his fingers on its pulse and provide valuable social commentary on its inner workings?

Kind of, but not really, no.

For one, Charlotte is simply too naive. I won't spoil the plot (what there was of it), but let's just say that Charlotte is continually the butt of the joke although sometimes only in her own socially immature head. Yeah, I also felt like a fish out of water in that environment, but geez, after a while you'd think her roommate's being a lacrosstitute (that's what we called the girls longing for a lacrosse player) wouldn't really phase her.

So many things about Charlotte are exaggerated from her tattered clothes to her inability to interact with peers to her pompous declarations that it is hard to take her seriously as a young girl living in the world today.

Do I wish Charlotte had more self-confidence? Sure, but if she really was anything like me, she got that more and more as time passed until she realized that her experience at Dupont University was valid, instructive, and worthwhile because she learned not only about who she was but also, and perhaps more importantly, who she never, ever wanted to be. At least I hope that's where we were headed at the end of the book, but it's difficult to tell.

On the other hand, Wolfe does do a good job explaining such a university's hierarchy vis à vis administrators, faculty, and athletic coaches, at least from what I know. And while some players' academic prowess may be questioned elsewhere, the vast majority of athletes at my school were just as smartypants as everyone else; yes, some received additional help and a few took advantage of it (there were some academic scandals like the one portrayed in the book during my time), but from what I've heard about others' experiences at other schools, Duke is definitely on the higher end of academic/athletic integrity in college sports.

And one would assume that other schools on the academic and athletic levels of Duke, such as Stanford and the fictional Dupont, would operate similarly, but that isn't adequately reflected in Wolfe's narrative.

The real problem I have on the subject of athletics in the book, though, is about the daily interaction with athletes on campus. For instance, students' chanting the basketball players' names as they walked by. Puh-lease! Oh, and about their living entirely separate lives from the rest of the peons? Different, absolutely, but not as separate as described in the book.

In my experience, sure athletes had some private parties (like any of us would with our closest friends) but for the most part on my campus, you could run into a basketball player at an open party, in the mess hall (lunch only though, as they ate dinner together), or the library--where (gasp!) they studied too. The idea that kids with 1400 SAT scores (which was mentioned many, many times) would drool over fellow students is exaggerated. Ridiculous, in fact. Yes, college students are known to be a bit over the top when cheering on their teams (Duke's Cameron Crazies, for instance), but that's all left on the court/field/etc.
Again, from what I know.

Overall, Wolfe's idea is original and the book is extremely well-researched--indeed perhaps too well-researched as it comes across as rather stilted. Despite good intention, though, it's just too cliché--the genius hick girl who's lost in the big bad college world, the dumb(ish) token white jock, the entitled blond-haired frat boy, the independent thinking geek who will never get the girl.

And it goes on way, way, way too long; the story could've easily been told in a quarter of the space, and as it was, I was able to skip over twenty pages at a time without skipping a beat. This is Tom Wolfe's style, though, so if you like his other books, this last criticism might not bother you as much.

In the midst of writing this review, it finally occurred to me what really bothered me about this book, though: it did what most annoyed/annoys me about the type of university and people described (caricatured?) in the book.

It took itself too seriously.

This book would've been much more entertaining had it been written with a sense of humor and less (fake) drama, and, dare I say, by someone (a woman) who had actually gone through the experience.
Sometimes research just isn't enough.

If you come across it in a sale pile, by all means, pick it up and have a go at it. Otherwise, I'd skip it and read something else by Wolfe instead, especially his short stories.

Out of five espresso cups, I'll give it three.

(Hey, for anyone out there who wants to offer up a cute little espresso cup graphic, I'm willing to take donations if you're willing to accept my never-ending gratitude and all the glory that comes with it!)

Read on!



Blogger nikinpos said...

Yep- the 'flimsy cotton print dress' bits annoyed me too!

Blogger stefanie said...

"I have an order to maintain, so you'll have to stay tuned..." Ha. I can definitely relate to that sort of anal compulsion towards the chronological. :-)

I haven't read I Am Charlotte Simmons, but Guinness Girl was just complaining about it the other night. I think I'll skip this one. Thanks for the thorough review, though!

Blogger sognatrice said...

Nik, glad I'm not the only one. Some things were so ridiculous (like the dress) and he just...keeps...mentioning...them. Gah!

Stefanie, about the order, you know I thought about skipping ahead to the book I really liked, but then I got worried I'd never write this one. I know myself well ;)

Anyway, yes, save yourself the trouble here unless, like I said, it's on sale. I'm liking that GG more every day ;)

Blogger Karina said...

What a great detailed book review. From your review I feel I'll skip this one and wait for your version of the story, I think you'd tell it better. ;-)

Blogger Bre said...

From my side of the Student Affairs/ Residence Life perspective - it grated every single one of my nerves!

Blogger janet said...

Good review, I never went to college but had a child in college when I was reading it.
It was somewhat enlightening for me or maybe not?
I enjoyed it.

Blogger Shan said...

Great review. I think I'll take a pass on this one as well.

Blogger sognatrice said...

Hmm...now I feel a little guilty that I'm steering people away from Mr Wolfe's work. Eh. I think he'll survive the backlash ;)

Karina, welcome, and thanks. To be honest, reading that book made me think seriously about writing down my memories from that time period before I forget them. A book, probably not, but at least something for when I want to look back at the glory days ;)

Bre, ah, someone with actual experience here! Thanks for adding your comment.

Janet, well, he does a decent job of giving the basics of (this type of) college life, I suppose, but since everyone is different, our experiences are different too. I guess for dramatic effect things need to be exaggerated, but I think some things were just too over the top to still be believable. I think parents of college students might be afraid to send their kids back there after reading this, but I'm glad you took something positive from it :)

Shan, I think you're making a good decision. There are so many fabulous books out there (like the one I'll be reviewing next week if all goes well).

Blogger Bryan and Autumn said...

I loved reading Bonfire of the Vanities so a friend of mine bought me a copy of Charlotte Simmons a couple of years ago. He went to Duke law school and he said the book reminded him of his school days there.
I didnt even get half way through the book...it was putting me to sleep! LOL

Blogger sognatrice said...

Autumn, yes, there are without a doubt many things in the book that Wolfe got from Duke; in fact, when I started, that's why I thought I'd like it because I was like "Yes! And the reading room! Yes!". But after a while it just got too stereotypical and, like you said, kind of boring. He had the backdrop OK, but then, in my opinion, dropped the (basket)ball (hah!) on the plot. You can only take small town girl does university so far, and in my opinion, Wolfe proves it by beating the same stuff into the ground over and over.

Geez, I'm getting harsher the more I think about it. I hope I never have to ask Mr Wolfe for anything!

I loved Bonfire of the Vanities but have been hearing very mixed things about I am Charlotte Simmions.

Blogger sognatrice said...

NYC, I guess you can throw me into the mix as well ;) I haven't read Bonfire; if I ever do, it won't be for a long while.

Blogger KC said...

Every time I've considered reading something by Tom Wolfe, someone has warned me off! Have you ever read Straight Man by Richard Russo? It's my favorite academic novel.

Anonymous Sara said...

Hmm, somehow I missed this when I dropped by yesterday.

I am trying to think of a time I have ever read or attempted to read a book where the main character is a woman and the author is a man and I ended up liking it. All I can think of right now is Vanity Fair, coincidentally enough (you know, considering Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities), but maybe there were others. Oh, and I also think Balzac does a pretty good job wherever he attempts it, and Tolstoy. And okay, Gregory Maguire's Wicked is just a delight. Often, though, I find them so obnoxious in the first ten pages -- Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for example, or Memoirs of a Geisha -- that I can't continue.

I didn't want to read this book because I felt sure it would be more of the same. But I can't quite put my finger on where these books fail.

It's beyond taking themselves too seriously. I think it might have more to do with that old saw about writing what you know. What does Tom Wolfe know about being this person he has described? You can only understand so much second-hand. Maybe it's about knowing what details to include, and what details not to perseverate over. Maybe it's about knowing what would really be important to your characters, and knowing what not to say because you just aren't them, but your reader might be.

This reminds me of another blogversation over at The Gimp Parade about movies about people with specific life conditions that don't use actors with those life conditions, and why they are almost universally bad and insulting.

Blogger sognatrice said...

KC, I haven't read that...must put it on my Amazon Wishlist ASAP!

Sara, oh how I love your comments :) Funny that you specifically pointed to the "man writing as woman" phenomenon as it's exactly what I was thinking about on my bus ride home today. I didn't mention it in the review, but my thought process was similar to yours...I always get fed up a chapter or so in because I just can't get the author's mug out of my head (or, more appropriately, he hasn't managed to get it out since that *is* his job). Your point about such an author not knowing what is valid vs. useful to mention once or twice vs. what should be stressed (that's a nice way to say beat into the ground) is well-taken. I think this, in addition to taking itself too seriously, were the two biggest flaws of the book.

I've never read Wicked, but I really liked Vanity Fair too--did a paper about it in college, but damned if I remember what I wrote! Wouldn't mind reading it again.

I'll have to check out that blogversation; sounds interesting!

Anonymous midnightbunny said...

I had no idea you went to Duke University. Kudos! ;D I'm a UNC gal myself ... and still here in the area. That's one of the best things about reading favorite weblogs ... realizing at times how small the world really is ... and that there are so many connections out there.

By the way, thank you for the book review. I think I will pass over that particular book (my college days are over, and I'm wondering if in revisiting those thoughts I'll even understand or relate to his perspectives.) I also wonder if any other writings by Mr. Wolfe would be of interest. It might be worth checking into as a summer read.

Blogger sognatrice said...

Midnight Bunny, a sincere welcome to a tarheel is in order :) A lot of people here seemed to have loved Bonfire of the Vanities, so maybe that's a good place to start? Anyway, I agree--good summer project!

Blogger Dewey said...

This is very interesting, because when I read this book, I found it far from my own college experience, too, but I thought maybe it could just be that I went to a small liberal arts college instead of a huge Ivy League college. Looking back, I can see that Charlotte was a bit of a stereotype, but at the time, I knew someone just that naive who was about to start college, so I kept thinking of her, which made Charlotte seem more realistic.

Blogger sognatrice said...

Dewey, I just would imagine that someone with that supposed level of intelligence (Charlotte was a genius!) would have a modicum of common sense at least part way through the book--and I really think that's my biggest problem with it, that it just drug on so long. If all of that had happened in half the pages, I think I would've found her a bit more believable. Maybe.

But I still can't excuse the sheer beating the reader over the head with some of the themes; I've been told this is a Wolfe trait, and if that's true, I should probably stay away from his stuff from now on ;)

Thanks for your comment :)

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