Book Review

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, is one of those novels that has popped up in the comments and in book recommendation posts a lot of times and never gotten a full review. I figured I’d use some of my quarantine time to tackle it and what a long, strange book it was – sort of a romance, sort of a fairytale, and mostly a book about college. I feel like I’d need to read it three or four more times before I know quite how I feel about it, but here’s my first impression.

The story begins on the first day of college, with Janet moving into her dorm room at Blackstock College in Minnesota. She has two roommates, Molly, whom she likes a great deal, and Tina, whom she barely tolerates. Janet, Molly, and Tina quickly become friends with Nick, Robin, and Thomas. Janet and Nick start dating, as do Molly and Robin and Tina and Thomas. The story covers Janet’s four years as an undergraduate.

The reader is assumed to have some familiarity with the old Scottish ballad, “Tam Lin.” In this poem, a human woman named Janet meets a mysterious man (Tam Lin) and becomes pregnant by him. She considers aborting the baby (using herbs) until he reappears and tells her that he is mortal, but that he is being held captive by the Queen of Faerie. Tam Lin tells Janet that she can save him from the fae if, on Halloween night, she drags him from his horse (the fae ride out on Halloween) and holds on to him as he undergoes a series of changes. Which she does, cause she’s the best.

The most interesting thing about Dean’s urban fantasy is how little fantasy is in it and yet how much. The world of the college is its own little island where people passionately debate the merits of learning Latin. It’s clear from the first page that something is odd about the college. There is a rumored ghost who throws books, plants grow out of season, and the Classics majors are all eccentric. Nick and Robin make odd allusions to being older than they look and keep having entire conversations in Elizabethan English. At one point Janet idly wonders whether Nick, Robin, and the improbably good-looking Thomas might be aliens.

However, most of the oddities are subtle, and the plot stuff doesn’t kick into high gear until the last chapter of the book. Instead, Janet does undergrad stuff. She works on papers. She has sex for the first time (with Nick). She and her roommates adopt a cat. She reads a lot. It’s fascinating, because this whole epic story about fairyland is happening, but it’s so out of focus that there doesn’t seem to have been any plot at all until the end of the book when all of the plot suddenly reveals itself. It shouldn’t work and yet it’s both utterly mundane and completely haunting. It’s a slow paced book until the last fifty pages with very little conflict, EXCEPT that this epic fantasy plot (of the ballad) is happening under the surface.

This book was first published in 1991 and the story takes place in the 1970s, two details I mention because of a few moments in the book that I suspect seemed progressive at the time (particularly a discussion about whether actors of various races could play certain Shakespeare characters) and now seem more regressive (the answer to the aforementioned question is clearly “YES”). Also, the setting of the 1970s is important because of the role that the birth control pill plays in the story as a fairly new contraceptive, as well as the availability and legality of abortion.

The decision of whether or not to have an abortion is an important plot point, so readers who are triggered by this issue beware. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the characters are general pro-choice, and that there is no sex-shaming. The roomies going to the clinic together to get their very first birth control pills was a rite of passage moment that I rather adored. However, there’s also some magical pregnancy/baby stuff that might frustrate some readers.

I was not 100% onboard with the romance. This is a fantasy/coming of age novel, not a romance novel (in structural terms) and the focus is on Janet. If you know the poem, you know who Janet will end up with, and they do have a clear connection to each other, but I never felt that they really loved each other. It just seems like it’s the end of the book, and the book is based on a poem, so now they have to get together before the book ends.

So did I LIKE the book? Yes, very much, as a story about college. I identified with it greatly. Because nothing much happens for most of the book, it was a slow read for me. As a fantasy, I thought it needed more fantasy in it. As a novel, I thought the structure was too slow most of the time and madly rushed at the end.

And yet…

The way tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (there’s a lot of Shakespeare in the book) creeps in its petty pace from day to day in the book is, I think, part of the point. When you start college, if you are privileged enough to do it like Janet does (four years, full time student, lives in a dorm, ah, those lower 1970s tuition rates) then every day is kinda like every other day but after four years you are a different person than you were on the first day.

As for magic – instead of magic being a sudden flashy thing, it just quietly pervades. The world of English Literature and the world of Classics and the world of theater and idea of study and learning for its own sake – these are, in themselves, magical and increasingly unusual things, so it’s no wonder that certain flowers grow out of season, or that the Classics Department rides on horseback at midnight every Halloween. In a microcosm where all is thought, and most of that thought is bent toward the past, of COURSE these things would happen. Sometimes the vagueness feels like a feature and sometimes a bug. It’s a very odd book.

I thought I’d never finish this one. But once I finished it, I wanted to read it again. I guess I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. This isn’t one of my favorite love stories, but I think it’s my favorite college story. It’s so immersive, and so true to the experience I had at my small liberal arts college. The book very much celebrates the idea of learning and thinking for its own sake – that we are richer as a people if we, as a society, don’t lose that ability to treasure learning for no other reason but that it brings joy.

Readers, I try not to read other reviews before writing my own, and I rarely link to them – but when author Jo Walton reviews a book, I pay attention. Here is her marvelous review. I found this quote especially fascinating:

It isn’t just a book you like better when you re-read it, it’s a book that you haven’t had the complete experience of reading unless you’ve read it twice.

I haven’t re-read the book yet, but I think this is true. So much is coded that when I go back and reread it, knowing the things I know having read it once, I think my experience will be very different. I don’t recommend this if you prefer fast-paced books or a lot of drama, but I do recommend this if you like solving puzzles, if you can’t get enough allusions of Shakespeare to suit you, and if you had, or wish you had, a weird and dreamy time at college.

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Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

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  1. 1
    MirandaB says:
    10+

    I read it in college and thought it was boring and then I read it about 8 or 9 years ago (stil way after college!) and was fascinated.

    One takeaway I had on the second time was how the college environment, especially THAT college, was like fairyland itself. Near, but not of the ‘real’ (adult) world.

  2. 2
    Jill Q. says:
    8+

    This book is the definition of a mixed bag for me. It is probably not the book’s fault. It was a book I read about and wanted to read for years before I tracked down a copy, so it’s hard to live up to years of anticipation.
    It was very, very well-written and I loved the ending. This is one of those books where I almost quit and I’m glad I didn’t b/c the plot and the writing style totally pulled together in the end and made it seem very magical.
    But honestly? I just found the characters unbearably pretentious with all their quoting. I kept think “yes, yes. We all know how clever you are.” When I read this book, I was recently out of college and I was scrabbling to find any kind of job with Great Recession looming. Sitting around and quoting literature all day seemed unbearably twee. It kind of put me off reading about books about college/university life all together.
    Maybe today with college farther behind me and a better perspective I’d enjoy it more. It certainly was a memorable book.

  3. 3
    Kate Nepveu says:
    12+

    I haven’t read this book in ages, but this seems like a perceptive review.

    It was also the reason I found a copy of Christopher Fry’s THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING, which is absolutely wonderful (and a romance, therefore on topic here!), which is itself worth the price of admission.

  4. 4
    Stacey says:
    8+

    This is one of my top ten all time favorite books (these can be identified by the multiple copies I own, ha). I first read it in college a couple years after it was written, and at the time was struck by how different my experience, at a huge state university, felt from what was described there. And at the same time, how there were commonalities – the rumors about the professor in the Music department, the odd places on campus that I would stumble across, the sense of being completely out of the world.

    I’ve reread it at least four times since then and absolutely agree, it gets better upon reread.

  5. 5
    DiscoDollyDeb says:
    10+

    The Jo Walton review of TAM LIN (titled “College As Magic Garden”) can be also be found in Walton’s excellent WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT?, which is one of my favorite books about reading and re-reading—even though I’m not much of an SFF reader. Highly recommended.

  6. 6
    MGW says:
    12+

    Diana Wayne Jones also write a book based on Tam Lin- Fire and Hemlock which I would highly recommend!

  7. 7
    JoanneBB says:
    5+

    I have a well worn paperback. I am pretty sure I first read it while doing my undergrad and it gave me an unrealistic view of what American colleges “must be like” because it didn’t track with my experience 🙂

    I don’t know why I love it, and it’s no longer in my top 10 of all time, but I still read it every few years.

  8. 8
    KarenF says:
    13+

    I’m one of the people who unabashedly loves this book and I re-read it every year. I was about seven years out of undergraduate (at a very large public university) when I first read it, but found the characters and dreamy world out of world experience closer to my Master’s program at a smaller school, in a smaller town.

    I’m lucky enough to live within driving distances of Carlton College (in Northfield MN), which Blackstock was based upon, and even luckier to know someone who is close friends with the author. One afternoon, with an author-provided list of “this location matches this place in the book” some friends and I trekked down there to do some exploring. (Yes, that is how much I love Tam Lin).

    I probably have read the book at least 20 times since my initial read, and I still find something new in it each time. I also think the love story does work a lot better on the re-read, but it’s very much an enemies, to friends, to lovers story, and upon reflection, I realized just how much quality time these characters had spent in conversation and writing letters to each other.

    I also really like how much the friendships grow and change during the book – it’s as much a book about friendship as it is about everything else.

  9. 9
    Lisa F says:
    5+

    I’m way too biased a source on this – I loved the heck out of that book!

  10. 10
    gwen says:
    3+

    I read this book for the first time in my dorm at Carleton College (the college the book is based on)! It felt so magical then and it still does.

  11. 11
    Dayle says:
    5+

    This is one of my favorite books; I reread it every few years, along with Dean’s Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary and Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife. I also send the Wynne Jones rec above.

    You’re right that it’s not a romance per se—it falls under the fantasy subgenre of mythopeic fantasy, which I love love love!

  12. 12
    Dayle says:
    2+

    “second,” not send.” Sheez!

  13. 13
    Jessi says:
    7+

    I absolutely adore this book, although I would absolutely agree that there isn’t enough fantasy for it to be a fantasy and not enough romance for it to be a romance – it’s maybe more of a Bildungsroman, following Janet as she matures through 4 years of college. It is very strange and dreamy and has wonderful friendships and I think I need to reread it for the umpteenth time right now.

  14. 14
    Allison says:
    9+

    I am another reader who absolutely loves this book and rereads it every few years. I think it speaks to me as an ideal of college – where everybody is intelligent and well-read and would love to read poetry aloud on a Friday night instead of going out drinking. I found the fantasy level to be just-right for me, but I guess I also found it much more obvious than the reviewer did. I do agree that it isn’t much of a romance.

  15. 15
    Jennifer says:
    6+

    Oh lord, I couldn’t get into it. I’m so bored of college. I read this review to see if the book got any better and if the fantasy doesn’t kick in until the very end, I guess that answers it for me. Thanks!

    I feel bad when a lot of people love a book and I just. do. not.

  16. 16
    Emily says:
    5+

    I read it in high school and absolutely loved it. It was what I wanted out of college and I was really into Shakespeare and mythology and it was perfect. I haven’t read it recently but it’ll be interesting to see how much differently it looks from the other side of my twenties. I loved all the little details, like the Spanish major cursing at the vending machine and the all-green outfit and the textbook wedged under the bookcase. I agree with the other poster – it has a similar dreamy vibe to Fire and Hemlock where the fantasy is sort of the underlay to the story about growing up. This also sparked my interest in Tam Lin songs (Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention).

  17. 17
    Emily says:
    6+

    I saw that Jo Walton talks about the pacing in her article and I really liked it – I thought it seemed to true to my experience of college, where the first year took forever and the next seemed to go faster.

  18. 18
    Diane says:
    5+

    Sometime in the 90s, there was a story in a 4-story anthology based on Tam Lin and it was quite good. Wish I could remember the author/book.

  19. 19
    Tam says:
    9+

    I read this book in high school, and it turned me into an English lit major. It’s not a perfect book, and the pacing is off, and yet I’ve STILL read it six or seven times. Also the Classic majors I knew there were all vague and charismatic and faintly unhinged, so I can’t fault Pamela Dean there. One of their profs was even convinced he was a reincarnation of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and would occasionally slip into first person when discussing the battles.

  20. 20
    Diane says:
    10+

    Wow – was reading the comments on the most recent HABO and there it was! The story “Autumn Leaves” in A Love for All Seasons by Edith Layton is a retelling of the Tamlane story.

  21. 21
    MsCellanie says:
    6+

    Given the date of publication, I must have read this when it very first came out – because I think I was in high school and didn’t “get it.” (I know that I read some of the other books in the series in high school and liked them much, much more.) In my memory, I was reading this on a bus.
    Maybe I was very, very early in college.

    I remember the Shakespeare allusions and thinking that’s what college was going to be like.

    I also remember that the plot did not work for me at all. I was reading a lot of teenage romance and a lot of fantasy at the time, and this was neither fantistical or romantic enough (for me). I half wonder what it would be like to revisit it and, at the same time, I’m pretty sure it’s something I want to leave in the past.

  22. 22
    Mintaka14 says:
    5+

    Speaking of Tam Lin stories, I’ve just finished The Darkest Tide by Alicia Jasinska – a YA novel that draws on the Tam Lin story, and a Polish folktale. Lina Kirk sets out to rescue the boy she has a crush on and finds herself fascinated by the wicked Witch Queen who took him as a sacrifice to the sea. The language reminded me of Robin McKinley’s fairytale short stories. And it was fantastic to read such a gorgeously written bisexual twist on the original story.

  23. 23
    Cicely says:
    5+

    I have owned this book for years and love it while always being conscious of just how WEIRD it is for a fantasy book, in just the ways you mention! She faithfully recreates college life in such mundane detail that it’s almost boring, and yet I get sucked in. 😀 And then everything comes together very quickly at the end. I agree that the “love” relationship is not developed very much, but I feel that they recognize that they’re being forced to fast-track things because of circumstances (circumstances = evil Faerie queen) and that they’re just going to try to make a go of it… it’s not a guaranteed HEA.

    Incidentally, this is part of a series of reimagined fairy tales that also includes the excellent Snow White and Rose Red, by Patricia C. Wrede, set in Elizabethan England with faeries, witches, and witch-hunters.

  24. 24
    Cleo says:
    5+

    I read this in the 90s and I remember not caring for it that much – I thought it dragged. And I was probably too recently out of college to appreciate the depiction of college life. That said, it’s a book that stuck with me.

    As @Cicely says, it’s part of a series of fairytale retellings edited by Terri Windling (one of the creators of the genre of urban fantasy). I read several of them because I was a big Charles DeLint fan and he wrote Jack the Giant Killer for the series – retelling of the Jack stories (jack and bean stalk, etc) set in contemporary Ottawa.

    I didn’t enjoy Tam Lin as much as Jack the Giant Killer (or its even better sequel, Drink down the Moon) and so I just dismissed it entirely. The idea that it should be read twice is interesting. Maybe I dismissed it too soon

  25. 25
    Magpie says:
    6+

    I remember reading this in college and liking it, but I probably read the Wynne Jones Tam Lin book Fire and Hemlock 5 or 6 times, so it had a lot to live up to!

  26. 26
    Kathryn says:
    5+

    I read some of the other fairy tale retellings in this series back when first came out, but I missed this one. Although it sounds like something I would like — it sounds like it has a bit of a Lord Peter Wimsey vibe, where people just go around casually dropping quotations from Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, etc. into their daily witty conversations. I don’t know why, but I’m sucker for these type characters, even though IRL I’d probably find people, who did it as much as Lord Peter does, a bit twee and precious.

    Another wonderful Tam Lin retelling is Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, which is set during the reign during reign of Mary I (Tudor) of England. The heroine, Kate, who is one of Princess Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, is exiled to a remote castle, the Perilous Gard, by the jealous Mary who blames her for an indiscretion that Kate’s younger & prettier sister, Alicia, actually caused. Before Kate sets off, the princess (the future Elizabeth I) promises Kate that is she will do what she can to bring her back. At the Perilous Gard Kate quickly discovers that intrigues and dangers are not just found at Mary Tudor’s court. This is a YA novel published in 1970’s.

  27. 27
    Dayle says:
    2+

    Ugh, another edit to my initial post: MYTHIC fiction, not mythopoeic. Argh!

  28. 28
    Catherine Heloise says:
    2+

    Oh wow, I read this book in my first year at university and completely IMPRINTED on it, even though it was nothing like my own university experience, and then I re-read it approximately every three weeks for two years until my copy fell to pieces. I’m on my third copy now. I love the way you get to the end and realise the fantasy story has been quietly there all along.

    For those who are fans of Tam Lin retellings, this website might be of interest: http://tam-lin.org/ – the author sadly passed away a few years ago, but for years she collected every variation of the ballad and every retelling she could find, and she even wrote some fanfic of it herself, and it is an absolute treasure trove of everything Tam Lin.

  29. 29
    Lianne says:
    3+

    Hmmm, now I’ve got an urge to pull out my hardcover to reread (I bought pretty much all of the The Fairy Tale Series put together by Terri Windling, in the original hardcovers. There were so many of the greats of 90s fantasy there. Charles de Lint, Kara Dalkey, Jane Yolen, Patricia Wrede, Steven Brust… And those gorgeous Tom Canty covers. The last one was published in 2002 (Bluebeard crossed with the utopian cults of the 1800s).

  30. 30
    Heather says:
    2+

    It is so gratifying to read the review and comments on this book. I read it when it came out and read Terri Windling series it was a part of. I have it still, next to Fire and Hemlock I got from my book of the month club. (Remember those clubs? I never managed to send any books back or return the little slip, so I ended up with tons of books and tons of bills. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t a character fault of mine but rather a marketing plot.)
    Anyway, my short comment was meant to just say that reading that book made me feel drugged, like I was under some kind of spell myself. I could never explain to anyone at the time how I felt about it. Reading about it today made my crummy day much better. Thank you.

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