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I Am Charlotte Simmons
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on 27 July 2014
Just read 2 of Woolfie's books back-to-back, or should that be front-to-back-to-back. OMG I'm beginning to think like him. All his favourite targets are there - modern art ( Chagal and Malevich get a pasting - I have a Malevich poster on my wall from a London exhibition, political correctness, sexual mores (especially of the young), political posturing, nepotism and corruption, Puritan attitudes (which he seems to respect) and undercover racism. As with all thematic novels, the characters are bent to fit the target, though the main characters - Nestor Camacho and Charlotte Simmons are well drawn and provide the reader with a personal focus. Unfortunately to hit his prey the number of coincidences and absurdities begin to mount. But I forgave all that as the narration rollicked along - not forgetting his favourite and repeated vocabulary of sheerly, citizenry, gloaming (never heard that used outside a Scottish context i.e. Roamin in gloamin with my lassie by my side, When the sun etc.) and so on. In each case the last chapter is a cop-out and tidies up posse ends that would be better left loose and hanging. Nevertheless both are extremely good reads, as the fact that I had to stay up to 4am to finish one of them. With now go back and read my first and most enjoyable Tom Woolf novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. These two novels are definitely that the Woof canon, and none the worse for that.
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on 2 January 2014
Tom Wolfe is one of my favourite writers. I loved The Right Stuff (his best book, in my view) and enjoyed Bonfire, and A Man in Full also. So I looked forward to reading this, and for a lot of the time was not disappointed. I think it says a lot for his skills that he was able to get into the head of a young woman from a certain kind of background and tell her story in a way that shows real understanding. That was great.

A problem I had though that it was not really possible to really like any of the characters. Even Simmons - as another commenter has written - gets on my nerves a bit. Yes it must have been a shock for a person of that background to be confronted with the sort attitudes she saw and felt (getting "sexiled" by her room-mate and sneered at), etc. But part of me wanted to give her a sharp talking-to and tell her to toughen up a bit.

The other characters in the book are, to varying degrees, unlovely creatures and dislikeable. They conform to types we have all met: the nerdy guy who cannot get a date and who wants to save the world (Adam); the sex- and sports-mad "frat boy" who has Daddy to bail him out and who expects to glide into an investment banking role (mind you, those days are over); the snooty former boarding school pupil (Beverley); the leftist lecturer with a hatred of sports (Quat) and so on. There is comedy here; however, some of the dialogue is so crazily rude that you do kind of wonder if college really is that crazy.

More broadly, the novel tackles something that bugs me: the obsession that so many people have to "fit in" and "be cool". On one level, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this but it can become destructive when it means that you'd rather be "one of the gang" than be so "uncool" as to care about achieving excellence in academia. This is a problem not just for boys, but girls also. Anyone who has had to put up with being bullied for being a "nerd" or "swat" at school by the "jocks" will know what I mean.

Wolfe doesn't write about one of the very current problems with US academia: the skyrocketing costs of funding and debt. Many graduates with their liberal arts degrees can end up with a nice-looking ticket, a lot of debt, and a financial problem. And yet the urge to go to a smart-sounding school to get that "ticket" retains an allure out of sync with the reality.

One thing disappointed me about the book is that we never really find out what happened to the main characters (I won't spoil the plot by saying exactly what I was looking for). It would have been great to find out what Charlotte Simmons eventually did at the school.

On the whole, a good read. Not his best, but still very good.
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on 28 August 2013
And not for any woman. Wolfe doesn't try to make his people real, they are vehicles for satire/prejudice. And it's so easy to inveigh against the youth when you're old, unattractive and envious, but surely a temptation to be resisted. Any woman in a Wolfe novel, to put it more decorously than he does, is arm candy, and she's in it for the money and fame. This is nonetheless a page-turner, a deplorable one.
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on 9 March 2018
Perfect in Every way
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on 22 June 2008
This book is not as good as his previous work but if you like Tom Wolfe (and I do) you will still enjoy this. He has obviously spent much time researching the modern day US campus and he has a somewhat jaundiced view which may well contain much truth unfortunately. It apparently won the 'Wost Sex Scene' award which lets face it is a rather stupid award so I don't blame him for not going to pick it up at the ceremony.
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on 16 January 2018
Fantastic. Psychologically detailed and nuanced. Some judicious editing might have sharpened the edges somewhat.
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on 13 April 2016
Very good condition
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on 6 December 2012
About 1/2 way thru and getting a bit bored by it but will plough on. Lacks the insight of Bonfire or A man in full.
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on 16 January 2017
In his first two novels, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full”, Tom Wolfe satirised American big business and the country’s legal system; with his third, “I am Charlotte Simmons”, he turns his attention to education. The title character is an intellectually brilliant working-class girl from an impoverished rural backwater of North Carolina who wins a scholarship to Dupont University. (The university is a fictitious one, although it is supposedly set in a real town, Chester, Pennsylvania). The plot deals with the relationships between Charlotte and three male admirers- Hoyt Thorpe (a member of the exclusive Saint Ray fraternity), Joseph “Jojo” Johanssen (a star athlete on the college's basketball team) and Adam Gellin (a politically radical journalist on the college newspaper).

There are two institutions at American universities which seem incomprehensible to outsiders, the fraternity system and the sports programmes which allow star athletes to benefit from a college education, however modest their academic achievements may be. It is these two institutions which lie at the centre of the novel. Dupont has a particularly successful basketball team whose members are held in the highest regard by most of their fellow students. The team’s coach, Buster Roth, is a national celebrity whose earnings, boosted by endorsements, come to two million dollars a year, far more than the salary of any of the academic staff, including the College President.

Dupont is supposed to be an elite, Ivy League establishment, on a par with Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the sort of place where a high proportion of the faculty are Nobel Prize winners. It therefore surprised me that much of the student body, as described by Wolfe, is pervaded by a culture of anti-intellectualism. The most important thing, for most students, is to be seen as “cool”, and there is a widespread belief that coolness and academic effort are mutually incompatible. This attitude is particularly common among the athletes and the frat boys, who regard diligent study more as a vice than as a virtue, and those like Jojo’s friend Charles or Hoyt’s friend Vance who actually do work hard and achieve good grades are careful to hide this fact from their colleagues. Even outside the basketball team and the fraternity building, however, many students have a similar attitude and value social success more than the intellectual variety. Charlotte’s snobbish, upper-class room-mate Beverly, for example, is far more interested in getting drunk and sleeping around than she is in the subjects she is supposed to be studying.

Like most of his fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe is a male version of Beverly- good looking, sexually promiscuous, hard-drinking and with a powerful sense of entitlement. Although his grades are poor and his family are not as grand as he likes to make out, he believes that, merely by virtue of his membership of Saint Ray, he is entitled to some position of power at the heart of American society, preferably in the financial sector where the big bucks are to be made.

Adam Gellin is very different to Hoyt, and in some ways much nicer. (He is, for example, a sincere and generous friend to Charlotte, whom Hoyt treats badly). He is genuinely intelligent and works hard at his studies. He too, however, has his own sense of entitlement. He is part of a left-wing intellectual clique who call themselves the “Millennial Mutants” and who believe that by virtue of their supposed intellectual gifts they are the future movers and shakers of the world, entitled to some position of power at the heart of American society, preferably in Government or in some opinion-forming body. There are also some curious gaps in Adam’s knowledge; a self-proclaimed radical intellectual, for example, really should have known that Karl Marx was German, not Austrian, and that his “Das Kapital” was written in the 1860s, not the 1880s.

Jojo undergoes considerable character development in the course of the novel. In the early chapters he is the stereotypical “dumb jock”, living only for basketball. (His great ambition is to become a professional player in the NBA). He largely ignores his academic work, doing only the bare minimum demanded of him, and sometimes not even that. (An important plot development occurs when Jojo persuades Adam to write an essay for him). Yet, partly as a result of Charlotte’s influence, his personality undergoes a change. He starts to take a genuine interest in academic subjects and even signs up for an intellectually rigorous course in Greek philosophy, despite thereby incurring the scorn of Coach Roth who insists that his athletes should only take least demanding courses possible. (There are similarities between Jojo and Conrad in “A Man in Full” who also undergoes personal development as a result of exposure to Greek thought). Although, in terms of points on the IQ scale, Jojo is probably less “intelligent” than someone like Hoyt Thorpe, he has more potential to benefit from his time at Dupont. At least he has learned that knowledge and learning can be valuable in their own right, not simply as a means to some materialistic goal.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as either “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “A Man in Full”, and I think that the main reason for this was that Charlotte, the novel’s main character, is also a rather contradictory one. On the one hand, we are told that she is not only formidably intelligent but also beautiful and self-confident. On the other hand she finds it difficult to make friends, yearns to be accepted by Beverly and her set (even though she can see just how shallow they are), worries about whether she can get Hoyt as a boyfriend (even though it should be obvious to her that he is a worthless bastard) and is thrown into a deep depression when he cruelly dumps her after their one sexual encounter.

Part of Charlotte’s problem is that she finds it difficult to reconcile the values of her home town with those of the university. At first she tries to live according to the Puritanical moral code she has learned from her devoutly Christian family, especially her mother, but slides towards an acceptance of the far more hedonistic Dupont ethos, possibly because in Charlotte’s case the intellectual principle behind this code is not so much “What would Jesus do?” as “What would Momma say?” Wolfe never really makes it clear whether Charlotte actually shares Momma’s religious beliefs. Towards the end of the novel he implies that she does not, but makes curiously little of this fact, even though from Momma’s point of view Charlotte’s abandoning her Christian faith would be a far worse sin than her trying alcohol, or even losing her virginity.

Apart from the sex scenes, which as other reviewers have pointed out are horribly clinical, another reason why I was less impressed by this novel than by its predecessors is that Wolfe’s picture of the American academic world never really came to life in the same way as his portrayal of, say, high finance in “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Some “campus novels” (“Lucky Jim”, “Places Where They Sing”, “Porterhouse Blue”) have concentrated on the university teaching staff, but this one concentrates far more on the students themselves, and Wolfe, already in his seventies when he wrote the book, gives the impression that he does not have much interest in, or sympathy for, the younger generation. He seems to take it as granted that the unattractive qualities which he objects to in a few students- drunkenness, promiscuity, snobbery, anti-intellectualism- are widespread throughout the student body as a whole; the “Millennial Mutants” are presented as exceptions to a general rule, a small spark of intellectual light in the vast Philistine darkness that is Dupont University. If that is really Tom Wolfe’s view of his country’s young people one wonders why he bothered to write an entire novel about them.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 October 2015
I loved Tom Wolfe's 'New Journalism' when I first read it in the 1970s with the dazzling prose of books like 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' and his transition to writing novels with 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' was also very impressive, with his journalistic research giving the novels an added insight and realism. That same research is evident in this book as Wolfe has obviously mugged up on the current state of U.S. campus life but for me it was a little too evident - as though he'd just transposed whole sections of his research interviews straight into the book, without any editing. Indeed there seems to have been hardly any editing going on here at all, the book is way too long for such a slight narrative - country girl comes to top-notch Ivy League university, struggles at first but then finds her feet - and should have been whittled down from its 750 pages to under 500.

However, Tom is still a very good writer and some sections really sizzle, with big characters like Coach Buster Roth being realised before your eyes in pure flesh and blood. And while the central character Charlotte Simmons isn't entirely sympathetic (in fact none of the characters who revolve in her orbit are) I did enjoy reading about her transition from small hick town academic superstar to student at the prestigious Dupont University. Her attempts to fit in there clearly show that there is a class system in America just as stratified as that in Britain. Unfortunately these 'good bits' are interspersed with sections which are very hard work to read - the novel really sags in the middle before finally resolving satisfactorily - I think that a good editor could have have fixed this by making the book a lot tighter - at times I wanted to say "For God's sake Tom just get on with it..."
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