Tom Wolfe, “I am Charlotte Simmons”

Charlotte Simmons is a back-country girl who’s first in her high school class and an all-around genius — which gets her sent to proto-ivy Dupont. Her self-righteousness and surety barely masking fear seem like a pretty common freshman scenario to me. Confronted with her classmates’ nonstop partying and expensive lifestyles, she eventually gives in and becomes a victim of college life.

Published: 2004, 676 pp.
Obtained via: Library
Date started: 4.30.07
Date finished: 5.12.07
What I liked: The first half or two-thirds of this book had me absolutely rapt. I started out at a private college and had an experience quite similar to one in the book where Charlotte’s father, after meeting her new prep-school, private-plane roommate’s family, suggests they get lunch at the Sizzlin’ Skillet rather than Le Chef. When I was at Ithaca, a father and his family stopped me and some friends downtown to ask us where he could “get a good burger.” I said — only half jokingly — that there was a Wendy’s up the hill. Anyway… The description of college goings-on and freshman habits are right on the money for the most part.
What I didn’t like: Except some of the slang. I don’t know where Wolfe went to observe kids, but either some of the slang words he chose were very regional or they’re just simply out of fashion already. A few things really bugged me about the last part of the book. Charlotte goes to a frat formal with a guy she’s been hanging with even though she knows it’s likely to have stuff she’s not comfortable with. It seemed like all of a sudden she went from hanging with a group of intellectuals to being crazy about the fact she was hanging with the hottest frat guy in the hottest frat house on campus. And academia takes a total back seat for the rest of the book. Charlotte Simmons loses herself entirely, to the point that the last sentence of of the book is “It obviously behooved XXX XXX’s girlfriend to join in.” She doesn’t even have her own identity any more! Charlotte’s stronger than that!
What I learned: Reconfirmed that frat guys are bad news.
Unresolved question: Does Charlotte ever get it back together after freshman year? (Yes, this 676-page book only covers freshman year.) It’s great that she inspires the star basketball player to become a scholar, but what about her?


  1. Grant Barrett

    As I understand it, Tom Wolfe went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to speak with Connie Eble about college slang. Connie is a well-known slang expert who has been collecting it from her university students for decades. She’s thanked in the front matter of Wolfe’s book. People who have read the book say he modeled the university in the novel on Duke, which is not far away in Durham.

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