Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons

This post is full of spoilers, so if you haven't read I Am Charlotte Simmons yet, consider yourself warned!

Summary:
In I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe tells the story of our eponymous heroine, a small town and sheltered girl from the mountains of Sparta, North Carolina, who finds herself attending the prestigious Dupont University as an innocent and morally self-righteous freshman. Determined to prove her self-worth and brilliance, but caving under the pressures of wanting to finally be accepted by the cool kids, Charlotte's first semester showcases an epic fall from promising young genius to average shallow student who counts becoming the girlfriend of a college basketball superstar the greatest success of her academic career.

My Thoughts: Oh, Tom Wolfe. You started this book with such promise, such interest, giving us characters who were interesting, flawed, and rife with so much potential. And then, about half way though the book, you gave up. I can understand giving up - this book is over 750 pages long, and the first half is pretty good. But as Charlotte experiences the terrible turning point that leads to her downfall - getting drunk for the first time and then losing her virginity to a snake-like frat boy in a graphic scene that borders on date rape - so does the book. I get that sex is important. Life changing, even. And I understand that Charlotte is devastated and ashamed by her experience. But she spirals into such a deep depression, and for so many pages, that Wolfe began to lose me. I found his constant generalizations of "girls who are depressed" to be overwrought and presumptuous, and I had a hard time relating to Charlotte's despair. I wanted to shake her and tell her to move on, stop throwing away her college career on a bad sexual experience, and get some professional help for her depression. This is not to minimize Charlotte's rape - because I do view her experience as a rape - but I wanted her to understand that it wasn't her fault and that she is not ruined because of it. That she never comes to this conclusion, never rises above this terrible thing, upset me. That Tom Wolfe, the author, seems to agree that this degradation is something Charlotte could never overcome just made me angry.

Characterization, or lack thereof: While Wolfe started the book with promising characters and somewhat interesting conflicts, he throws it all away in favor of two-dimensional caricatures that merely represent what he sees as "typical college students." Charlotte is the most interesting, and that isn't saying much. She recognizes and condemns the shallow views of her peers because they look down on her for the way she dresses, her Southern accent, and her country upbringing. But then Charlotte turns around and looks down on her one true friend, Adam, who comes to her rescue in his darkest moment (mostly because he's in love with her and wants to sleep with her) because she doesn't think he is cool enough. Charlotte recognizes this conflict and struggles with it, but ultimately seems to think that it's okay for her to judge others, and not for others to judge her.

The other characters - Charlotte's roommate Beverly, her friends Bettina and Mimi, Adam, the evil frat boy Hoyt, and her eventual boyfriend, Jojo - are little more than representations of what Tom Wolfe sees as typical college students. In the acknowledgments of the book, Wolfe thanks his sons for helping him get the language and slang of the youth "just right." I wish he hadn't done this. It made the slang seem all the more forced and awkward. I realize this book takes place in the 90's and that some of the language is and should be dated, but Wolfe swings from using the words Fuck and Shit 75 times on one page, to having Adam lust for Charlotte's "loamy loins." I'm not even kidding. That's a direct quote. The inconsistencies were distracting and just plain embarrassing.


Who is Charlotte Simmons? I was most disappointed with the end of the book. After breaking through her depression and receiving the grades from her disastrous first semester, Charlotte has a decision to make. She can confess what really happened to her mother (or not) and move on, working hard to reclaim her role as brilliant young genius, or she can... find fulfillment and acceptance as Jojo's girlfriend? She chooses the latter, and I still don't understand why. I mean, I understand that longs to be accepted but I also understood (or thought I did) how much value she placed on intellectualism and academic success. Her transformation is so complete that it rings false, despite the fact that it is documented in grueling detail. By the end of the book, I don't feel like I know Charlotte Simmons. Considering she's the title character, this is not a good thing.

One last thing. Has Tom Wolfe ever heard of feminism? I'm not saying that every book needs to pass the Feminist Board of Approval, but when you have a scene where Adam, a man, literally attempts to shake some sense into the very depressed Charlotte, it is not okay to write something about how all women desire a man to take control and tell them what to do. (I am summarizing the passage, but barely.) When I read that particular paragraph I nearly threw the book across the room. Really, Tom? Tell me some more what I want, what I like, how I act when I'm depressed, what all college students are like, etc. Stereotypes are bad enough, but lazy writing is unforgivable.

Verdict: Two out of Five Stars. I shall quote reviewer Jacob Weiserg, because I agree completely: "You may never put down a Tom Wolfe novel. But you never reread one, either."

So! Who out there as read I Am Charlotte Simmons? I've had my chance to review, discuss and criticize. Now it's your turn!

27 comments:

  1. I had a hard time with this book. I never felt attached to the characters or the plot. Good for you for getting through it!

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  2. I have not read this book, but I. love. your. review. I shall steer clear of it at the library

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  3. With as little time as I actually find to read books, I'm glad you wrote this review so I won't waste it on this one!

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  4. You know how frustrated I was with this book. I felt that the characters did not develop based a two-dimensional carecturization of different college student types. It was frustrating. And I found our protagnoist to be insufferable.

    That said, I couldn't put it down either. Have you read Prep? I read these about the same time and I found that Prep did what IACS attempted. And much more concisely.

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  5. I have not read Prep, but I did read American Wife and LOVED it. I'll add Prep to my to-read list. Thanks for the rec!

    Oh, and I also disliked Charlotte immensely. I find short stories are better equipped for unlikeable characters. To spend 750 pages with someone you hate is very, very difficult!

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  6. I agree; the characeters developed more and more into stereotypes as the book went on and I was quite angry with Charlotte (and pretty much everyone else) when I finally got to the end too!

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  7. Thanks Amy! I plan to post my reviews more often. I love talking about books!

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  8. You are very welcome! You should read American Wife, if you haven't already. It's fiction but based on Laura Bush's life and is really fascinating!

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  9. I'm glad you agreed! I had never read a Tom Wolfe book and was expecting something much better, from all the buzz I'd heard. I guess his earlier stuff is more consistent, but it'll be a while before I attempt anything else by him.

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  10. I love your posts:) My friends referred me your site for the first time. And I'm still following your posts everyday. Take care. Keep sharing.

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  11. I just took the book back to the library in the middle of the 8th CD (out of 25).  Nice story line, interesting characters, but, my goodness is this thing full of needless fluff.  TW never says anything once he can say five times.  I actually quit at the point where Hoyt is about to haul Charlotte into the bedroom, which should be the first big crisis of the book (1/3 of the way through, about time!) but I finally got tired of waiting the the writer to get on with the story.  I've read earlier Wolf (I liked Bonfire of the Vanities) but he'd getting more bloviated as he gets older.  This book could use about a 400 page-ectomy.

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  12. I can't imagine listening to it read out loud! I skimmed through a lot of those lengthy descriptive pages. Too much! 

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  13. I know I'm late, but I just got around to this book. It was in a large dusty bookshelf in my in-laws basement, and they insisted that I read it. Hesitant to do so because it is not really my genre, I gave in anyway because they are both bookworms whose word I rarely disagree with. 

    I hated it. I got about 100 pages in, and had to put it away. While in college, I had my fix of parties and basketball games, and I had ZERO interest in revisiting this. This book just felt gross sitting in my lap and I couldn't go on - the sloppy drunks, the cussing, the general feeling of 'blech'; I just couldn't stand it. Now that I know additional spoilers, I am VERY glad I put the book back on the shelf. 

    Everyone raved about this book; I don't get it. I recently read a blog that touted this novel as "Tom Wolfe's best". I don't believe I will be picking up a Tom Wolfe book anytime soon.......

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  14. Thanks for joining the conversation, even if you were a little late. I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who couldn't stand this book. :)

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  15. Whitechocolatediva11:24 PM, January 05, 2012

    Bless you for this blog post. I picked up this book a long time ago. I heard mixed things about it, had not read Tom Wolfe. But, I work with college students and have a lot of respect for their trials, tribulations, successes and even painful failures. I LOVE college students. That said, I tried to get into the book about a year ago and was bored. Tonight, I picked it up again, and thought to myself, 'oh, let me find a brief plot summary so I have some context', and bc it was going to be a 2nd try at reading it. You've saved me from wasting hours on a book that will not contribute anything to my life, and I thank you. This will go in the donation pile and I'll move on to other reads. I enjoyed Prep, btw.

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  16. I'm glad I could save someone the horror of reading this book. I will definitely be checking out Prep - I really liked American Wife, so my hopes are high. :)

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  17. It seems everyone here intensely disliked "I am Charlotte Simmons", but I loved it. I first read it back in 2007, and have just finished reading it again (Jan 2013) and I realized I had either not been paying attention on the first read through, or had just forgotten an awful lot of it. I love all of Wolfe's verbose description. Love the characters. Love the conflict between the cultures of Sparta and Dupont! And I love the ending, how it kind of leaves one up in the air, which is (in my opinion) an ideal way for a book to end, because it leaves you free in your imagination to continue the storyline. I see the downward trajectory of Charlotte's character, and while not inspiring, I find it fascinating. I think the worst part of it was her tendency later on, to judge others not by their inherent rightness or wrongness, but more so by their status in the society she increasingly strives for acceptance (and star status) in. In any case I think it was an excellent novel in many many ways.

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  18. This book LITERALLY made me sick.

    So, this protagonist, who supposedly is super-smart, goes from being used like a "cum rag" (Tom Wolfe's words) by a frat boy to finding satisfaction as a moronic basketball player's girlfriend?

    I do not know if this novel is aiming to:
    a. show how retarded all women are
    b. critique how retarded all women are
    c. enjoy how retarded all women are,

    but, no matter the motive, it is the most offensive piece of drivel I've ever read (and I've read A LOT of 'women are pathetic idiots' books, unfortunately). Even more depressing, ever since the book was published, I have *seen and heard* evidence of many Charlotte Simmons.

    Also, I feel VERY badly for Tom Wolfe's female lovers (if he's hetero--I have no idea). He obviously has no idea about desire or orgasm in women, and certainly has never heard of the clitoris.

    Charlotte Simmons is,to use Tom Wolfe's faux-collegiate language, a "tool". And what the hell is "yuckamamie"? Obviously his teenage sons (Heeshawn and Veeshawn?) dropped the ball on that one. And finally, the name "Hoyt Thorpe" sounds like the noise one makes when one (perhaps the anorexic roommate Beverly?) is vomiting. "Hoyt--Hoyt--Hoyt--Burghhh--THORPE!!!!!"

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    1. Glad that I'm not the only one who had this reaction to the book!

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  19. I'm chiming in late, too, but I just read it, June 2013. The only other Wolfe I'd read is Bonfire, which was OK, I guess, anyway, I found Charlotte among the Operation Paperback books and thought, Hey, why not? Well, all right, so I'm more or less glad I satisfied my curiosity, but seriously, what is Wolfe's deal with women?

    Women love men who take control, who sexually abuse them, who use them for some end, who use them as props for their egos and life experiences, and the only woman I can think of who seemed to be able to stand on her own two feet, without needing a man to validate her existence, was Camille, and I did not find her a likeable character - it seemed that Wolfe tried to draw her as a stereotypical feminist... I'm not getting into that, I think we all know what I mean, anyway, that really got to me.

    Plus, I really despised his constant slut-shaming. Women like sex. Oh my. Oh how shocking. Oh dear oh dear what is this world coming to. Young women are willingly having sex.

    The next thing you know, we'll want the right to vote!

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    1. I love this comment - sorry I am 2.5 years late telling you so!

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  20. Try Back To Blood if you want real Tom Wolfe horrors. Forget loamy loins. He has a guy tracking a woman's crotch and imagining the 'spirochetes' in her 'lubrication'. There's a doctor's nurse, who has happily cast her professionalism aside to be the man's plaything, allowing him to pay the rent and to take her to a regatta where every man gathers around her shouting over and over "I would! I would!" while grabbing their crotches. And Magdelena stands. blushing with joy under this attention...this is a college-educated woman. Later, old men leer at her "and she loved it, loved it, LOVED IT!" Of course she and her friends talk about boyfriends incessantly, having no plans of their own. I have read all his books...good for holidays, but its hard to keep your temper. Not one credible female. Every single one defined by men...either juicy young loamy-loined wives or bitter cast-off divorcees. Plus, he seems to think women have failed in life merely by getting older...like they should die or move over without protest...and God forbid, Martha could take the 10 million Charlie Croker gives her on trading her in for a girl of 23...no suggestion that it is reprehensible to destroy the faithful wife and mother of your children: "that was how the male animal is made, wasnt it?" ...and use it to build a life for herself. No, Martha spends her time at the gym, feeling bad because of all the young hot girls there and hoping to catch another man. I dont know about you, but I could do a lot more with total freedom and 10 million smackers.

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    1. I'm late to reply to this, but man, Tom Wolfe is the worst! Coincidentally, I was looking at my book log for 2015 and realized I only read 3 books by men out of 37, and I was much happier as a reader and a woman!

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  21. I first read I Am Charlotte Simmons back in 2007 and loved it!

    Wolfe accurately describes the battle of a young innocent outsider against peer group pressure and loneliness. And this battle is presented in the context of the newer idea (of the neuroscientists) that the soul and free will are merely illusions of the mechanistic brain. It's interesting that this particular issue, that of whether or not the soul and free will are reality or an illusion, never really gets answered by Wolfe, who seems to expect the reader to sort that one out for themselves.

    One of the high points of the book for me, was the phone call in which a lonely and homesick Charlotte tracks down her best friend (now going to another college elsewhere) on the phone, and quizzes here on what she is experiencing at her college. Charlotte it seems was hoping for a heart to heart in which both she and Laurie would be able to buoy each other up in their mutual battle against loneliness and to uphold the standards of their upbringing, but it soon dawns on Charlotte that Laurie has decided to follow the dictum of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", explaining that college is a place where one can learn all about life, experiment, and leave at the end, with there being no ongoing consequences or judgements. One cannot help but sympathize as Charlotte realizes by the end of the call that she really is all alone in her struggles and loneliness.

    I also love how the book presents us with (some of the) characters who we really like at the start, but by the end are shown up for their (lack of) moral values and inconsistencies, just as is often the case in real life. Sometimes, people are users, and Wolfe doesn't shy away from pointing that out, even in the case of the heroine. In the end even the innocent and moral Charlotte that I was rooting for well into the middle of the book, morphs into indefensible hypocrite and snob, as she now "cut's dead" the socially lower grade former friends (Bettina and Mimi) whom she overheard criticizing her behind her back on her return from the horrific formal, while at the same time starting to get somewhat chummy with the rich and pretty "Douche" sorority girls, who had treated her far worse before she became the latest it girl, than Bettina or Mimi ever had. Like the "control cats" in the experiment at the very start of the story, Charlotte by the end has become a part of the peer group she so courageously stood against at the outset.

    Wolfe ends the book in a satisfyingly unresolved manner. Charlotte at the end, while enjoying her elevated social status, is now in two minds, and seems to be putting off the inevitable "discussion with her soul" that her mother had suggested when she realized Charlotte had been lying to her about what has been going on. And that lack of resolution seems in my mind to be a hint of a TV series, the current book perhaps making up season 1 of an ongoing series. HBO might have thought as much also when they bought the rights for the series, but they've been sitting on those rights (if they still have them at all) for seven years now, so whether we'll ever see Charlotte and company on the small screen is entirely up to HBO.

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    1. Thanks for this detailed and thorough review! I read the book so long ago that I can't remember a lot of it (besides my smoldering hatred) but I always appreciate another view.

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    2. Thank you. Yes, it's interesting how sometimes we immediately know whether we like a book or a film from the outset. I saw "Beautiful Creatures" a while back and absolutely hated it (though I kept on watching it). But now, about a year on, I feel like I want to see it again. Weird huh?

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    3. I'm certain that part of it the book/film and part of it is ourselves - sometimes we encounter something great, but aren't in the right place to appreciate it. The first I started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I couldn't get into it. A tried again a year or two later, and now it's one of my all time favorites. A good example of "It's not you, it's me!" :)

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