DNF: Tom Wolfe – "I Am Charlotte Simmons"

12 Oct

GENRE: Contemporary fiction / literary
PUBLISHED: Vintage, 2005

The back blurb:
“Dupont University – the Olympic halls of learning 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 Sparta, North Carolina, who has come here on a full scholarship. But Charlotte soon learns that for the upper-crust coeds of Dupont, sex, Cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.
As Charlotte encounters Dupont’s elite – her roommate, Beverly, a fleshy, privileged Brahmin in lusty pursuit of lacrosse players; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont’s godlike basketball team; 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 Gellin, one of the Millennium Mutants who run the university’s ‘independent’ newspaper and who consider themselves the last bastion on intellectual endeavour on campus – she gains a new, revelatory sense of her own power, that of her difference and of her very innocence. But little does she realise that she will act as a catalyst in all of their lives.”

I didn’t finish this book. I stopped somewhere around page 400.


It’ll go on for another 371 pages (771 pages total) and I really couldn’t take any more. And this is despite the fact that at least at this point, the story finally started moving (though I’m sure you know what’ll happen from reading the back blurb). I quit after the chapter with Charlotte’s paper on Darwin.

I had my doubts whether Wolfe could pull it off after I saw something on TV about him and this book, but by then it was too late – I already had bought the book. Before that, I just knew him to be a good writer (Bonfire of the Vanities), so I thought to give this book a try. After all, the blurb sounded interesting.

Well, Tom Wolfe really can write. Those 400 odd pages read fast, but by then I really had enough of his “preachy-ness”. Most of the time Charlotte said or thought something, I heard the author talking and NOT Charlotte Simmons. And if I have to read one more row of (similar) words for emphasis, or one more transcription of Charlotte’s dialect (like: ” ‘It was a little town’ – tayun – ‘called Sparta?’ “; p. 288), or, my favourite, one more “- bango! -” – I think I’ll throw up.

I think the greatest flaw of the book is the main character. Charlotte Simmons is just not believable for me. A girl who scored “a perfect sixteen hundred on the SAT and perfect fives on four different advanced placement tests” (p. 14) doesn’t know what an i-banker is (p. 294)? Or hasn’t the slightest notion about consulting (p. 296)? Has never in her life seen (only heard of) Cosmopolitan (p. 161)? Or is outraged about the price for one issue ($3.99) which she regards as more appropriate for a year’s subscription (p. 161)? I don’t live in the USA, but I don’t believe that you can be this far behind the moon – no access to TV, newspapers or journals – and still score a perfect SAT thanks to your reading novels in French. I just don’t believe it. But then, it appears the PlayStation 3 is already for sale there so what do I know?

So sadly, I am Charlotte Simmons is one of the few books I didn’t finish (something I rarely do. I still have the feeling that I have to finish every book I start). It’s sad because Wolfe has an eye for situations and his descriptions of certain situations sound “real”. I liked his stuff about basketball. What’s even more sad, apparently Wolfe did a lot of research and still has nothing new to tell about college life except to deliver a shitload of preaching. And he does this with caricature-like characters and a done-to-death story.

There is a good review out there which sums up my points much better (and the reviewer probably finished the book) from The Washington Post. I read it on amazon.com (you have to scroll down a bit). I wish I read it earlier.

PS: After all the meticulous research going into this book, one thing: the PlayStation 3 will be available 2006 (if the Gods are willing).

Would I recommend this novel? Hmm, difficult to say, but probably not.

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: DNF


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