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!)