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!

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!