I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I came across this novel in my favorite bookshop. Its loud cover was sticking out a mile and after a while I felt myself forced to pick up the book, so I took a look at it, checked what it was about, and finally bought and read it. I was a little bit afraid of what I would find in between the covers, because based on the blurb I thought the plot might be a little too complicated and the language usage a little too frustrating and/or hard to follow. Actually, some of these fears came true but still, I am Charlotte Simmons was quite a good read.

The novel tells the story of young Charlotte Simmons, a native of the small mountain village of Sparta, North Carolina, a naive, innocent and inexperienced freshman student at the great and prestigious Dupont University. Charlotte comes from a modest background, so she arrives at Dupont with a full scholarship. And even though she is not the most friendly and easy-going person in the world, she quickly manages to strike up an acquaintance with three of the more charismatic senior students of the university: with Jojo, the enthusiastic but not too bright star of the basketball team; with Hoyt, the unscrupulous womanizer, the most popular person on the whole campus; and with Adam, the superbly intelligent geek editor of the university paper who nurses great plans about changing the world. The story then revolves around these four central characters – and it revolves in quite an entertaining and clever way. There are a whole lot of surprising twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention alive, and fortunately these are not just twists coming out of nowhere, they are all well-explained and they also always have their consequences.

Apart from being highly entertaining, the novel also draws a frighteningly clear picture of several personality types, worldviews and situations in life. For instance, my own freshman year came clearly to my mind when I was reading about Charlotte’s difficulties with fitting in, or about her fears, vanity, thirst for knowledge, moodiness, overcompensated inferiority complex, awkwardness,  need to conform, inexperience and self-pity. I remembered what it was like to be a freshman student in a strange city, coming from a faraway part of the country, and I could easily understand Charlotte’s constant uneasiness, her painful loneliness and also why she is not able to explain to anyone what is bothering her when she goes home for the Christmas holidays.

Although Charlotte is far from being an appealing character and I quickly came to the conclusion that she is a terribly manipulative person, her characterization itself is still very impressive and I could easily imagine what being Charlotte Simmons must be like. And it was just the same way with Hoyt, Adam and Jojo as well. It is quite clear that Wolfe carefully researched university life and the interests, motivations and ambitions of university students in order to make sure that he depicts the characters and the events in an authentic way.

However, exactly because of his desire to be as authentic as possible, Wolfe goes too far in authenticity when it comes to language usage. It is one thing that the novel is full of words in italics and with dot-dot-dots even within sentences – and these features actually did not bother me at all, as they were often useful in showing the embarrassment, shock or enthusiasm of a character. Apart from these peculiarities, however, Wolfe also keeps referring to Charlotte’s dialect, he often writes her words in something like a phonetic transcription, and he also writes some unnecessary mini-essays on the topic of the slang usage of university students – and these were just too much for me. If the author had not felt the need to emphasize approximately sixty-three times that in a stressful situation Charlotte always reverts to using her dialect, it still would have been quite clear, and then perhaps I would not have felt the novel to be a little too spoon-feeding sometimes.

The other (minor) problem I have with the novel is its length. Although the story is quite exciting and the characters are really very interesting, 670 pages seem a bit too many and I got a bit tired towards the end. And it was not just me, I guess. At least it seemed to me that Wolfe also got somewhat tired of writing, and the end of the novel seems a bit of a quickie. But apart from all these, I am Charlotte Simmons is a good novel, and I can imagine that one day I will reread it as it certainly features so much content and so many ideas that it is impossible to grasp every single detail and concept in one reading.

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