14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 15 May 2006
I love Tom Wolfe's novels - whenever I need true and utter escapism, they never fail to deliver what I am looking for, and this book is no exception. Once again the author skillfully provides insight into the lives of a vivid and varied range of characters, all centring on Charlotte Simmons, the first year university student struggling to cope with the culture shock of leaving behind small town life. At times the empathy I felt with Charlotte overwhelmed me and (much as I usually berate those who make statements like this) found myself marvelling that a male author could emulate such an intrinsically female viewpoint so effectively.
I did, however, feel marginally disappointed with the ending, which felt rushed and each character dealt with a little too easily. But don't let that put you off - this is well worth buying.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 2 November 2009
I've worshipped Wolfe for years. He is a master of stuttering, sparkling polemic, the poster-boy for the New Journalism (i.e. journalism that reads like a novel or short story) and pretty much unrivalled in that sphere. He has also been known to turn out a truly great satirical novel (Bonfire of the Vanities). But "I am..." reads... well, rather as you would expect a very long novel by an ageing satirical journalist to read, and I found it a disappointment. It feels like an early novel (say something by Fanny Burney) in that almost all of the characters are cardboard cutouts - entirely two-dimensional personifications of a particular character trait. The exception is Charlotte herself, and I can just about go along with her violently contradictory mixture of high-mindedness, resolution and fallibility - but oh my word she's unlikeable; as, indeed, is every single character. This, more than anything else, is what makes the whole thing such a drag -- it's simply too long a book, no matter how readable, to fight through if you can't care a rap about any one of the protagonists. On the purely technical side, it abounds in irritating Wolfean cliche ("loamy loins" being my personal least favourite example) while almost entirely lacking the fizzing, syntax-mangling exuberance of his earlier writing. And Wolfe's contention that American academia is nothing but a writhing snakepit of sex, substance abuse and cruelty would be fairly amusing in an article such as those in "Mauve Gloves and Madmen..." -- polemic is meant to be exaggerated and monotone, after all -- but in such a long novel it simply invites irritated rejection. After all, someone must occasionally do a little bit of work? The one potentially interesting character to me was Charlotte's best friend from home, who left for university with a similar small-town background and belief set, but who adapts to and revels in the freedoms of her new world in a much saner way than Charlotte -- I thought more could have been made of this contrast and the the fact that where Charlotte sees inescapable, incomprehensible depravity her friend sees freedom and choice from which you can take away exactly as much as you want.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I have read all of Tom Wolfe's works. He is one of those authors whose books I buy on faith. However this one was a let-down. Yes, he can write but the subject matter and the characterisation in this book were just too weak. There were some funny bits - the Japanese car called a "Bitsosushi" for example - but ultimately I was left with a sense of frustration because Mr Wolfe did not do enough with any of the themes and sub-themes he introduced. The characters were unsympathetic and as for the "heroine" - I wanted to shake her warmly by the throat - she was such a wimp. Her moping after her first sexual encounter drove me up the wall for several chapters. All in all, not Mr Wolfe's best book by a very long way. I hope he does better next time.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2006
This may not be Tom Wolfe's best book ever, but even when he's not firing on all pistons, his prose is more turbocharged than most novelists half his age. 'Charlotte Simmons' has received its share of brickbats, though you can't help but think that Wolfe has actually gone out and done something that other writers don't even bother with: he's actually done some legworks, like Dickens, Balzac and Trollope before him. Five stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2009
It's a little bit long and that means hard to take in one go... yet this faux-avuncular expose' of contemporary college life at a top American university kept me going back until I'd learned how its heroine - a straight and gifted poor girl from the Blue Ridge - will deal with the cards Life/Wolf has given her.
Armed with searing intelligence, a loving family background, and a superior secondary education, Charlotte heads for what all expect will be great things when she's accepted on full-scholarship to the fabled Yankee college known as DuPont. She leaves with with the blessings of her entire community - to discover that the same loneliness and peer-group complications which have dogged her school life are amplified a thousand-fold when when you have to get on and you're no longer the only smart kid in class.
Wolfe uses Charlotte to illumine the forces at work behind the dumbing-down of America: the worship of success at any cost, some of the truths behind the continuing if camouflaged dominance of the American elite, the destruction of all that is or ever might have been good and noble about "the life of the mind", the marginalization of intelligent, let alone intellectual, endeavour. But most of all he shows us, through Charlotte and almost those all she meets, what narcissism is, and how we are all affected and lessened by it.
I can't say this was a comfortable read; one's own hypocrisy is not a pleasing companion. And I can't say either that Wolfe understands everything about women, because Charlotte's motivations are somehow elusive: the manner in which she begins to use all her power, including her beauty, differently to get the recognition she craves is just short of credible to me. But he does render the nastiness she suffers at the hands of psychotic fraternity star Hoyt Thorpe very convincingly indeed; and Wolfe realises Charlotte's emotional turmoil after her brutal rape - suffered publicly within the indifferent, gossip-starved fish-tank that is undergraduate life at DuPont - with great insight.
In the end, Wolf's story is, once more, about the right stuff - what it means to come top in America today, and what it takes. Despite its surface bonhomie, it all makes rather a dark portrait of America and its lost innocence. Wolf makes us see that this innocence, which so many of us crave, may have been an illusion, and that we can't go back to it however nostalgic we feel; but he also makes us recognise that this illusion had and retains value.
It's an interesting idea, and a book worth reading.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 22 May 2006
I got this book purely on the basis of Tom Wolfe's previous work. Apart from A Man in Full I have liked everything that Wolfe has written because he writes with wit and intelligence without sacrificing good, old fashioned story telling.
This the story of Charlotte Simmons and her adventures in her first year at the fictional college of Dupont (roughly based on Stanford, I believe). She arrives from hicksville a talented over-achiever and arrives in Wasp ridden frat boy hell where everyone has their own agenda. It is a rough homily about Ivy League culture and belonging, success and failure and popularity versus academia.
I found the first few chapters to be pretty entertaining, and not being an American I find the look into American university to be interesting. But Charlotte is just about the most annoying person there is and that becomes an issue. In fact, most characters in this book are pretty unlikable.
There are some great scenes in this book (the sports stuff is great) but there is also so much unnecessary wordage. A good editor would have halved this book. I think Wolfe was trying the write The Great American Novel and tried to squeeze as much in as possible and rather than fleshing out the characters they just feel bloated. There are chapters which are almost transcipts of lectures that Charlotte attends. Lectures! It sometimes feels as if you are reading about the semester in real time...
I found this a real struggle to finish because it was just too big a book for such a simple story. Bonfire of the Vanities worked because Wolfe just laid it all out for you, warts and all - it was your choice whether to take the novel as a super melodrama, a novel about New York or a snapshot of the '80's. I am Charlotte Simmons fills those blanks in for you and because of that it fails to deliver much of anything.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
How does one describe the release of a new work by Tom Wolfe? It's an event, an eagerly awaited occasion and, in this case, a triumph. In preparation for his story of Charlotte Simmons Mr. Wolfe visited numerous campuses throughout the country, talking, listening, observing with his telling eye for nuance and detail. Of this experience he has said, "....I went to a lot of fraternity parties, and this is where age comes in. Most people had absolutely no idea who I was, I was just this old guy at the party. I was too old to be a drug enforcement agent, so I was not a threat. That worked very well...In my mind anyway this is both the story of a young woman in a difficult, new environment and also a depiction of the American University today."
Of course, that is precisely what this story is about, but no one could write it as has Mr. Wolfe. Charlotte leaves her small Blue Ridge Mountain town believing that as a freshman at Dupont University she will expand her mind, increase her mental acuity. She is both brilliant and beautiful. But rather than finding young people with similar lofty goals she meets wealthy, blase students much more interested in sex, beer, and drugs.
In an unfamiliar environment, longing to be accepted, Charlotte soon finds herself abandoning her lofty ideals in order to be a part of this intriguing new life. That's far from the end of her story, but you should read it from beginning to end in the words of Tom Wolfe.
Sure to be compared to Mr. Wolfe's groundbreaking "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is one more sterling achievement by one of America's foremost writers.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
It seems odd that Tom Wolfe, would attempt to write the college story from a female perspective. However, his daughters have recently graduated from college so I suppose he was inspired by their stories. He seems to have gotten inside the female mind to a reasonable degree but there are nuances that he just doesn't seem to have gotten.
Charlotte Simmons, the eponymous heroine is from Sparta, North Carolina, an american small town. As class valedictorian and academic superstar, she is expected to go far, and is due to attend Ivy League Dupont university. She expects to meet her intellectual equals at Dupont, something which has eluded her so far in Sparta. However, she is disappointed to find that students are Dupont appear to be more obsessed with drinking, partying, making out and sports, than they appear to be with studying. Wolfe also highlights the importance of sports teams to the american university system.
The story in not told solely from the perspective of Charlotte Simmons. We also meet frat boy king Hoyt Thorpe who is determined to be remembered as a legend within his frat house and white basketball star Jojo Johansson who undergoes a seachange in his attitude to his studies.
I mainly like the character of Charlotte Simmons, though I did find her a little sanctimonius and overly naive at times. However, her growing attempts to fit in and be seen as popular will reverbate with lots of readers. The most endearing character in the book, as far as I'm concerned is Johansson, who is determine to move beyond the jock athlete stereotype.
The book is quite long, but it literally zips by due to Wolfe's pacy writing and I never once found it a chore. Critics of the book have said that it does not accurately reflect college life but I never once felt that it over exaggerating. It's a whirlwind tour of the college experience, but its a remarkable acheivement for a male writer to capture a female mind so well.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2006
There is no denying Tom Wolfe's capacity for writing deepy compelling fiction with modern relevance, but I would complain that his narrative structure is becoming a little formulaic. You could draw a graph to map the similaraties between 'Bonfire of the Vanities', 'Man in Full' and this, his tale of American college campus promiscuity and superficiality. Each draws together a disparate cast of narrators, many of whom veer towards cartoonish stereotype, towards a semi-farcical denouement. Whereas his use of multiple perspectives once seemed highly dynamic and mobile, it is starting to feel clumsy and laboured. From the pea-brained 'student-athlete' and the embittered nerd, to the left-wing professor and the ball-breaking basketball coach, it is all a bit too categoric, too neatly representative to be brilliant satire.
Wolfe, as proponent of New Journalism, is expert at identifying and exposing an area of modern cultural decline, but can be lazily sketchy when it comes to his protagonists. Only the central character, the eponymous Charlotte, is a genuine bundle of contradictions - detestably fickle to the final pages - one moment haughty and snobby, the next moment a desperate sycohpant. You may not like or identify with this characterisation, but more crucially you may find youself questioning its veracity.
Moreover, Wolfe's been praised by some for his ear (or eye?) for youth culture, but some of his fictional pop references are cringingly embarassing: 'Dr Dis' anyone? Similarly cringing is the pseudo-intellectual musings of Adam Gellin's 'Milennial Mutants', although this is probably intentional. Wolfe is a master of dialogue though, even if he feels compelled to translate it all in italics throughout the book. Nevertheless, this a highly entertaining read, not many authors can make 600 pages pass so quickly.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 26 February 2008
Despite being over 600 pages, this book draws you rapidly into the world Wolfe has created and pulls you to the end. It's focus is on the characters rather than the plot to begin with, but they are all so clearly drawn that you can see them clearly and actually want to know what happens to them, even if nothing actually happens.
There are four main characters. Three are male university students - a charismatic alpha-male, a nerd, and an athlete. They intersect via the title character, Charlotte Simmons, a very bright 18 year-old from a small mountain town who wins a scholarship to a top US college. Different plot strands are set in motion and, through Charlotte trying to find her place at university (and in the world), become intertwined over around ten months and have a major impact on all their lives. The most complex character is Charlotte. Everyone else is to a certain extent a charicature, but one of the themes of the book is about how the dynamics of university student society is how it forces students into certain clearly defined categories and act in the way prescribed for these groups. Charlotte is more interesting in that she has no real idea about these different groups to begin with and is pulled in a lot of contradictory directions and her actions and thoughts are often clearly at variance. I'm still puzzling over Charlotte, particularly the ending, and that's a good sign; she is one of the most stimulating characters in literature I have come across in a long while.
The student world is seen through the minds of a wide cast of characters and their thoughts and actions are left to stand by themselves for the reader to make any value judgments about. The author's observations are more concerned with the use of language, in particular the different student "patois". One nice touch is reporting speech straight but breaking off to explain the subtleties of pronunciation.
A certain amount of pages is given over to brief biographical sketches of the characters, showing their upbringing and so on. This is interesting in itself but not strictly necessary as he sketches the characters well the moment the appear. There is also no seeming reason why some characters have these detailed notes and others don't as some with mere walk-on parts get them and other more important characters do not. This is a book written by someone who knows he'll be published and so doesn't have to grab anyone's attention immediately. I think the book actually benefits from that.
Overall, the book feels very realistic. Anyone who has been at university will recognise much in it, and see themselves reflected in the characters - although the US system and experience is very different to that of the UK. Thoroughly enjoyable and with a lot of throught-provoking ideas about self-identity.