At 738 pages, Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons follows the tribulations, confusions, betrayal, failures, and successes of seventeen year old Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe also delves into the politics of fraternities, sports, bullying, racism, and poverty. And just like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe adeptly creates nearly two dozen characters that are easily remembered. He spends years researching his books to create a world that moves efficiently and realistically. His books are always page-turners, regardless of the topic. I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test years ago and honestly didn’t think I would like anything else by him. I was thrown off by what I thought was a conservative republican old man who wears flamboyant white suits. But everything he writes has an objectivity and if it’s possible, simultaneously an empathy. It seems contradictory but all of his characters have accountability and reasoning. His female characters are solid—some are strong and some are just as weak and pathetic as his men. Even after reading (and loving) The Bonfire of the Vanities, I doubted Wolfe’s ability to write about a teenage girl entering college. Happily, I was wrong. He wrote so well that Charlotte stuck with me when I wasn’t reading the book and will forever be with me. I don’t even know if I like Charlotte but I understood her.
Charlotte Simmons received a full academic scholarship to the top university in the country, which has the second best basketball team in the country. Extremely shy and prudish, Charlotte is from a small mountain town with a population of 900. Charlotte is assigned to the wrong French class, where she meets JoJo, one of the top athletes on the basketball team. She later meets JoJo’s tutor, Adam, in the university library as he is writing JoJo’s essay. Charlotte’s temporary friends convince her to go to a fraternity party, where she meets Hoyt, the alpha member.
This small town girl, a freshman, interacts with three seniors who are or become the biggest celebrities on campus. Why? Is it plausible? Or is this just the plot that Wolfe has created to move the story along? The short declaration that is used as a refrain over and over is “I am Charlotte Simmons.” Charlotte believes she is someone. She is fully aware of her shortcomings and flaws but she is determined to succeed. In her small town, success was to get good grades, not get pregnant, and get out of town. In her university, it is celebrity, boyfriends, and male attention that indicate success. Charlotte’s ambition is no longer pointed at academics but at her social life. “success at Dupont, which, as far as she could tell, was measured in boys.” (Wolfe, 210) She loses her virginity to Hoyt because she thought he loved her. And while Hoyt is cruel and reprehensible, she herself is just as cruel to Adam, who she goes on dates with because he pays (and she is tired of the cafeteria).
Charlotte applies all logic and strategy to her social life. She knows that “Hoyt represented social triumph.” (226) She envisions Hoyt as “her protector and her validation for being [at the party] at all.” (230) She avoids being seen in public places with Adam because she does not want anyone to “see her in the company of a dork.” (362) She notes that her friends treat her differently because “her status had risen another gradation after the two lacrosse players fought over her at the tailgate.” (378) She is fully aware of how others perceive her and she acts for their benefit. She feels like an outsider but when she has those moments of inclusion or membership, she wants others to take notice. At the formal, she “wanted to make sure Nicole and Crissy saw how much fun she was having. She’d woven herself into the fabric of the formal.” (492)
Over and over Charlotte wants others to want her. She wants Hoyt to want her. She wants the girls to want to be her friend. She wants to be included. She wants to be inside. And yet, even when she is inside, she’s lost. At the end of the novel, she finally has a boyfriend—a celebrity boyfriend. And her thoughts are not on him but on herself. And how others perceive her
“A bit too late, Charlotte realized that heads were turning toward her in hopes of enjoying, sharing in, her ecstasy over the exploits of her boyfriend. Ohmygod . . . She sure hoped not too many had gotten a real eyeful of the glub, distracted, throughly uninterested look on her face. She clicked on the appropriate face just like that. Since the crowd had now launched into rhythmic clapping . . . Charlotte figured she had better join in, too.” (738)
While I was reading the book I felt bad for Charlotte and hoped she would not get hurt. I saw her as an innocent girl lost in a big campus with rich kids. But having reviewed my notes to write this entry, I wonder how innocent she was. She was extremely calculating when it came to the men. Her pain and degradation are direct results of her miscalculations. She did not deserve to be treated as she was but she was not as innocent as she initially appeared. And therein lies the beauty of Tom Wolfe’s art. His characters are complex and keep you thinking long after you have closed the book.