This book is full of lovely language, subtle references to the ballad of Tam Lin, unadulterated nostalgia for life at a liberal arts college in the 1970s, and characters who are flawed but endearing. I wore out one copy of this book and had to buy a second, which disappeared into a friend's library, so I had to buy a third. I reread it at least once a year, or whenever I want to read a beautifully written book which will reveal more on each successive reading.
However, lots of people hate this book. Some of the people who hate this book are people whose literary tastes I otherwise trust implicitly. It's hard to know why they hate it. They say they hate the cardboard characters (but the characters seemed to me to be both wonderful evocations of the archtypes they represented and also quite well-drawn as individuals). They say the book is pretentious (but I went to school with a bunch of people who talked like that -- we outgrew it, but the dialogue sang to me). They say the fairy tale is just nailed onto the ending of the book (but if you look, the details of the ballad are present from the first page -- and surely one of the things Dean is trying to say is that the fantastic has as its context the mundane). They say the writing is wooden (I disagree).
If you love lanugage, if you were ever a somewhat pretentious young intellectual, if you want to remember what it felt like to be 18 years old at a liberal arts college (and you didn't have to go to Carleton to feel the tug of nostalgia), you will probably like this book. But if you don't, you will be in good company.
on February 6, 2001
I first read Tam Lin, well, I can't remember when. I've read it over and over since then, though, and each time I pick out new clues, new hints, new allusions, new jokes . . . This is a textbook example of a LAYERED novel.
As many other reviewers have pointed out, understanding this book can hinge on a liberal arts education. I had one, I'm happy to say--we even operated on a trimester system, just like Blackstock, the college Janet attends in the novel (which is loosely based on Carleton College in Minnesota--after reading this book, I seriously considering transfering there).
Now. The ending IS a bit rushed. I tallied it up once: Janet's freshman year takes up very nearly one half of the book, while her other three years take up progressively fewer pages. The "fairy tale" ending gets a similarly rushed treatment, but I don't think that necessarily detracts from the story as a whole, especially if you're familiar with the Tam Lin ballad--which I wasn't when I first read it, and I still loved it.
If you can find it, buy it. This isn't a book to be borrowed from the library and read once--you'll never catch everything. Buy it, read it, read it again, and then read it once more. After a year or so, read it again.
on August 8, 2012
I rarely give 1-star reviews on this site, because if I've bothered to finish a book it's bound to have some redeeming quality that will at least bring it up to 2. But the best I can say about this one is that it's not offensive--in fact, I share many of the author's opinions--and that the prose was at least competent enough for me to continue reading, but that isn't very redeeming when it so utterly failed to entertain that I threw it against a wall. (I really did!)
The (alleged!) premise of this book is that it's a retelling of the fairy tale/ballad of the same name, set in the early 1970's in a small Minnesota liberal arts college. I say "alleged" because the fantasy element is only occasionally hinted at until the last 50 pages or so out of 456. The rest is "Daily Life of an English Major." In fact, over 300 pages describe the protagonist's freshman year, even though the events of the ballad don't happen until she's a senior. And, seriously, nothing happens.
But don't just take my word for it. Here's a representative sample:
"She put the books she was holding neatly on her lower shelf, shrugged out of her pink nylon jacket and hung it over the back of her desk chair, tucked her gray Blackstock T-shirt into her pink corduroy pants, put the jacket back on, zipped it to just below the Blackstock seal on the T-shirt so that the lion seemed to be peering over the zipper pull, and said, 'Let's go, before the line gets too long.'"
And the whole book is like that! Endless minutiae (and bizarre fashion choices), with every little thing described in detail no matter how irrelevant it is. Now, I have nothing against slow pacing; the right author can write a brilliant book consisting almost entirely of minutiae. Read The Remains of the Day if you don't believe me. But the difference between that book and this one is that here, the minutiae doesn't mean anything; there's no payoff; it doesn't advance the plot or illuminate the characters or their relationships. It's just endless daily life, the stuff that's moderately interesting to live through but gets boring when even your friends talk about it too long--and how much worse, then, when the people living it are fictional characters?
In Tam Lin, we sit through every meeting Janet has with her academic advisor to pick her classes. The merits of various professors and their teaching styles and syllabi are discussed. Every time Janet and her friends want food, we see them weigh which dining hall to eat in (the one with a view of the lake? or the one resembles a dungeon? did I mention that the architecture of generically-named buildings I could never remember is also much discussed?). And of course, there are the books. Endless discussions of literature--by which I mean, for the most part, old-school poetry and plays--seem to substitute in the author's mind for both plot and character development.
In fact, there's so little tension in this book that halfway through, Janet realizes the biggest problem in her life is that one of her roommates, while a perfectly nice girl, doesn't understand Janet's literary obsession. And that Janet therefore finds her tedious. What the....?! Did the author miss the creative writing class where they talked about how a plot requires conflict??
And then we get to the end, and the retelling bit plays out exactly like the ballad, and exactly as Janet was told it would. And then the (alleged!) villain responds with a disapproving stare and exits stage left. I say "alleged" because the most detailed description we ever get of her supposed acts of villainy is basically, "Well, there's a rumor she's slept with a married person sometime." How truly menacing!
I could keep going.... the indistinct personalities, the mysteries and foreshadowing that are heavily built up and then come to nothing, the use of unexplained, apparently magically-induced memory loss and general indifference to keep Janet from figuring out the entire (alleged!) plot early on, the dialogue that's probably 50% literary quotes, the 12 pages spent describing a play blow-by-blow, which even then fail to explain it so that it makes sense!.... but in the spirit of what I think Dean was trying to do with this book, I am going to recommend some other books instead.
So: if you want to read about college women in the early 1970s, try Nunez's The Last of Her Kind. If you want cultlike groups of Classics majors at small-town liberal arts colleges, read Tartt's The Secret History. If you like the idea of pretentious college students combined with fantasy elements, try Grossman's The Magicians. Or, for less pretention and more coming-of-age, Walton's Among Others (okay, I had mixed feelings about that one, but at least it has some plot and character development to go with its science fiction references). And if you're here because you want a fairy tale retelling where the girl saves the guy from an evil sorceress, check out something by Juliet Marillier, preferably Daughter of the Forest.
But if you really do want to read a book that describes liberal-arts-college life in exhaustive detail and talks endlessly about the sorts of works only an English major could love? Then by all means, read Tam Lin. You can have my copy!
on March 29, 2000
I was disappointed the first time I read this. While it was a very good novel about college life in the early 70s, I wanted to read a novel based on a fairy tale/folk legend. I enjoyed the literary dialogue bantered back and forth among the characters (believe it or not, my friends and I do speak this way; the curse of the overeducated!)
Curiosity had me turning back to the book a second time, and suddenly the world I blundered into was much richer. Without having the expectations of gnomes and wishes and magical events that I had the first time, the subtler wonders of this book unfolded. Tiny clues lead up to the suddenly otherworldly ending, ones that can't be understood on the first read-through.
Pamela Dean has to be a outstanding wordsmith, to manage to keep me interested through a 10 page decription of a uninspiring 17th century play, among other things. The pace may be slow, but it gives you a chance to watch the lovely scenary go by. For that reason, I love this book more every time I read it.
on October 2, 2000
I reviewed this book two and a half years ago, when I first read it, and I feel the urge to re-review it and give a more mature perspective. (or, "How Tam Lin Impacted My Life")
Since reading this book I have read so many works of great literature (like the poetry of Keats, and _The Lady's Not for Burning_, and _Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead_, and the poetry of Pope) that I wouldn't have been introduced to, otherwise. Besides that, I've reread the book itself a thousand times, recommended it to everyone I know, and looked for everything else she wrote. (This is still my favorite.)
The plot in brief: Janet Carter (of Carterhaugh) goes off to college; discovers friends, literature, magic, mystery, and politics.
How realistic is it? Rather. I go to a small Midwestern liberal arts college (it's in Ohio, though); I reread the book two weeks after arriving here, and I knew exactly what Janet/Pamela Dean was talking about. Ending up with roommates (well, only one) you don't know a thing about, becoming friends with them, meeting large groups of guys . . . and in my experience, Theatre majors really do talk like that, except my theatre major friends are more likely to quote Sondheim than Shakespeare (being the musical variety). My father went through a physics class altogether too similar to Janet's; my friend's fencing class is altogether too much like Janet's; and there are people here who *would* set bizarre things like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to music. (Does this make you intrigued?)
The ballad plot, for the sticklers, comes in on page 73. There are hints and other ideas of it before that, but the actual opening of the ballad is page 73. That doesn't mean you can skip the first 72 pages of the book, however. They're just as vital, just as amusing, just as interesting as the next 72 pages, or the last 72 pages.
My first recommendation is: Read it! My second recommendation is: Read ANYTHING Janet does that sounds interesting. "If it Doesn't Work, It's Physics"
on July 7, 2014
I'm not sure what happened between me and Pamela Dean's "Tam Lin", only that I hated it when I shouldn't have. What reason in the world was there for me not to like it? Janet loves books at least as much as I do. She, too, has no social life save her books. I'm well on my way to the same kind of education that she undergoes, and she's surrounded by people that barely speak without quoting a book. Throw in the fact that it's a fairy tale retelling, and a fantasy-loving bookworm like me should be in heaven. But no. I found myself heading quite the opposite direction. This review is an attempt to tell you why that is.
I really ought to introduce you to the plot before I get going, but in my understanding, all there is to say is that it's a "Tam Lin" retelling (Don't know the story of Tam Lin? Look it up or read either "Fire and Hemlock" or "The Perilous Gard") with most of the fantasy elements suffocated out of it by an exhaustive, satirical description of college life in the 1970s. If you took out everything about a class, play, or grand master of literature, the book would be 300 pages shorter. The fantastical elements do come in throughout the story, but the main character can't seem to recognize them at a speed faster than that of a snail. The writing style doesn't help the incoherence; Dean's third-person narration is similar to the way one of her college students would write the story: pretentious and cynical without, most of the time, being at all funny.
The characters drove me even more insane. Our main character, Janet (I refuse to give her the honor of being called a heroine) seems to be more interested in taking as many English classes as she can than having any kind of interpersonal relations, but she ends up with a social life anyway. Not that she deserves it - she's quite cold to one of her roommates because the latter doesn't like A Wrinkle in Time, takes the friendship of one of her high school classmates for granted until the last minute, and begins a romance with great reluctance only to become disappointed with the other half of it for not following through. As another character often remarks, for someone supposedly intelligent, she does a lot of stupid things. Only one character was likable, and only one romance was particularly enjoyable (and said romance is left unresolved at the end). A few secondary characters are promising, but they're mentioned only in passing and are therefore underdeveloped.
And the ending - my goodness. Not only are there half a dozen loose threads, but any poignancy there could have been is lost on a ridiculous attempt to stay true to the original ballad. I was considering going easier on "Tam Lin" before that ending. I won't spoil it for anyone wanting to actually read it, but let's just say there was a lot of eye-rolling on my part.
I'm sorry, everyone. I know there are people out there who adore Dean's "Tam Lin". Some of them are favorite authors of mine. But I'm just not this book's type. Those of you who love it, rail about me all you like. Those who don't - you're in excellent company. I cry you mercy for having to sit through this excuse for a fairy tale.
on December 31, 1997
College is a time which so many of us yearn to recapture. The energy and intensity, the freedom and growth, the importance of thought and opinion are all slowly-fading memories this Golden Age in our lives. In this book, Ms. Dean captures the oft-remembered magic and overwhelming optimism of the undergraduate years and reminds us of the days when choosing courses, battling advisors, and seeing plays with friends were all integral parts of life. It is within this fairy-tale environment of college that Dean sets her interpretation of the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, the story of a young woman's quest to save her lover from the Queen of Faerie.
Much of the greatness of this book comes not only from Dean's magnificent portrayal of the lives of her characters, but also from the way in which the realm of Faerie creeps into the story unobtrusively, mysteriously, and malignly. This is no sweet tale of elves and sprites, but a full-fledged Fairy Tale in its spookiest and most magical sense, where the reader and the characters are unaware of what is really happening around them until they are completely entwined. With great skill and obvious joy, Dean interweaves the two worlds flawlessly, with brilliant characterization and beautiful language.
It is impossible to pay sufficient tribute to this book, where this gifted author has brought together age-old literary and folk-tale themes and set them in this jewel of a story. The tale is dark at times, but the prose is light and flowing, and the characters are incredibly sympathetic. As many others have commented, Tam Lin is by far one of the best books I have read. It requires frequent re-reading and never fails to enthrall and amaze me with its magical story-telling and engrossing plot. I highly recommend Tam Lin to all who love literature, worship words, and see the potential sparkle of magic in college campuses in autumn. It is simply a joy.
on May 31, 1999
I had never read any of Dean's work before finding this in the bookstore, and I have to say that, as an English major who despairs of ever finding any novels at all with any true literary value, much less a fantasy novel that is jam-packed with in-jokes and lovely, obscure quotes that expressed that characters' feelings so beautifully and succinctly, I was overjoyed to read this in excess of 10 times before one of my friends pilfered it. For those readers who find that Dean does not cater sufficiently to the plot of the ballad of Tam Lin, I suggest a more careful reading. It is all there, buried in between the mundane happenings of everyday life, which is, I think, Dean's point. The one complaint that I do have is that Dean does not partition the book well. That may also be intentional, giving the reader a sense of how life flies by so quickly as one matures.
At any rate, it is fun to try and find the source of her thousands of quotations, and it is even more fun to love the characters and to care about them and about what happens to them. I almost went to Carleton because of this book... :)
on March 4, 1999
I read Tam Lin by chance, as it was recommended to me by a friend who happened to pick it up at the library out of the blue. All I can say is- thank goodness she did. Tam Lin is one of the best books I've ever read, and I'm quite critical. The characters are wonderful, real- those who wrote that they didn't like the book because Janet was "annoying" seem to be missing the point that only a well-written character can be human enough to be annoying sometimes. The plot develops at a slow, steady pace, which often I find irritating. Not this story- it was addictive from the first page. When I finished I went back to the beginning and read it again. When I'm craving good, pleasurable writing, I open my copy and start reading at random. Never have I found a book so easily quotable, as Dean's writing style is lyrical and crafted with almost impossible perfection. Lastly, I would read Tam Lin if only for the literary references- had I not read Tam Lin, I doubt I would have read The Lady's Not For Burning.
on December 13, 1997
"Tam Lin" is by far one of the most complex books of this genre I have ever read. By alluding to and relying on many great works and authors of English Literature (together with the fields of drama, music and even science) it is relays a deeper meaning to the modern text. In examining each of the texts alluded to, and also the further study of the ballad itself and its various forms, new perspectives are constantly shown. Like Yolen's "Briar Rose", "Tam Lin" is an historic literary work retold to show the relevancy in our modern world. The only dissatisfaction I have is that when I went to college, the students there were more interested in getting drunk than discussing literature!