The social value of the novel is in its unique ability to present human choices in all their variety and complexity. Plays and films also can show such choices, of course, but the novel has the advantage of easily allowing us to enter a situation from a particular character's point of view, or even to hear and consider their thoughts. All of this allows us to identify with the character within the situation and judge how we would act if placed in a similar dilemma. There can, however, be too much of a good thing, and that is what happens in Tom Wolfe's new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.
In his third book-length fiction, the celebrated journalist closely considers another aspect of American society, as he did in his first two novels, Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. In this case, the ostensible subject matter is the American system of higher education, but as in his first two books he is actually after bigger game. Wolfe intends nothing less than to analyze the basic motives behind all human behavior.
The story begins as Charlotte Simmons, the valedictorian of her high school class in rural western North Carolina, wins a full academic scholarship to prestigious Dupont University, a fictitious Ivy League institution. Charlotte quickly finds that her conservative, evangelical Christian, small-town ways have left her entirely unprepared for this elite realmnot academically, for she's a brilliant student, but socially. Charlotte is scandalized by the coed dorms, where even the bathrooms are shared by individuals of both sexes, and by the general atmosphere of sex and drugs and rock and roll that seems to make up contemporary college life.
Charlotte's simplicity, intelligence, and unadorned natural beauty attract ...1
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