Monday, July 30, 2012

Listen Up! I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I Am Charlotte Simmons (M) by Tom Wolfe is set in what seems to me to be an absolutely terrifying American college. Dupont College has a long history of educating the connected and the well-to-do, ensuring a high-paid future in investment banking or politics. Dupont also educates a group of elite athletes, the basketball players being at the top of the bunch. Next in the social strata are the frat boys and sorority girls who are entitled, well-heeled and view college years as a extended opportunity to drink and to hook-up. Next we meet the uber-intellectuals, who both scorn and fear the athletes and frat-boys, and who compensate with their own exclusive conclaves and moral judgements. Finally, we have Charlotte Simmons.

Charlotte Simmons is an anomaly who fits in nowhere. She is a brilliant sheltered girl who enters Dupont on an academic scholarship fully anticipating her college years to be focused on learning and scholarship. She quickly finds that she is isolated and lonely. What she doesn't anticipate is the effect she will have on so many lives.

Whether it's frat boy Hoyt who blackmails his way to success and callously robs her of her innocence; or Adam, the intellectual, who is her friend when she is in desperate need and is spurned by her when the tables are turned; or star athlete JoJo Johanssen, who is inspired by Charlotte to achieve academic success. Perhaps the greatest change comes from within Charlotte herself. Charlotte learns that she is not a special as she once believed. She finds she has the same ambition and desire to belong as the rest of her classmates.
I Am Charlotte Simmons is a scathing satirical look at a group of young people coming of age on a privileged college campus in a rather disturbing take on the generation of elite students poised to assume key positions in society. I found the story a bit uneven. The story seemed to focus initially on race relations amongst athletes on campus, but this thread seemed to get lost. The Hoyt blackmail story was at first very important but quickly disappeared only to be picked up much later in this very long book. Still, Wolfe has created a large cast of engaging and memorable characters. Memorable, but not very nice. In this unabridged audio version the reader Dylan Baker gives a spirited performance switching seamlessly amongst a large cast of characters in this largely dialogue-driven book. The language is very strong both in its description of sex scenes and rap lyrics. You'll want headphones for this one!

Other stories of college life include The Art of Fielding (M) by Chad Harbach, My Latest Grievance (M) by Elinor Lipman and I'll Take You There (M) by Joyce Carol Oates.

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