Title: Tam Lin
Author: Pamela Dean
Length: 468 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
In 1971, Janet Carter begins her freshman year at Blackstock College, where her father teaches. She and her two roommates fall in with an eccentric group of Classics majors. Over her four years as an undergraduate, Janet experiences all the usual the ups and downs of college life, but she also bears witness to the more mysterious side of Blackstock, such as book-throwing ghosts and midnight horse rides on Halloween night. Only in her senior year does she begin to understand the truth behind these strange happenings, and by then she has herself become a player.
Tam Lin is a modernized retelling of the Scottish ballad of the same name made famous by Fairport Convention’s song. At least, it purports to be that.
In the ballad, Janet is warned explicitly not to go to Carterhaugh (here Blackstock), “for young Tam Lin is there.” Headstrong and independent, she goes anyway, and there–of course–she meets Tam Lin, who is angry with her for plucking roses.
In the novel, Janet attempts to borrow for her English class Roman de la Rose from the library. She discovers a fellow student reading it in the stacks, and when she asks if she can use it, he yells at her and storms away. The student turns out to be a junior called Thomas Lane.
There, the retelling part of the story stalls. It becomes its own creature, one not wholly but mostly separate from the constraints of the ballad. Janet dates another student who isn’t Thomas; though they do rub shoulders throughout their time at Blackstock, they’re clearly just friends right up until they suddenly aren’t. Save for a few muted, vague fantasy elements, the narrative doesn’t pick up the “Tam Lin” plot again until the last seventy-five pages. Despite waiting with some impatience and curiosity to see how Ms. Dean would incorporate the story I knew into her quirky undergraduate world, I discovered that I was really okay with that.
Dean’s elegant prose, her meaty and believable characters, and the nostalgic, dreamy tone that pervades the novel all made up for the slow-paced plot. More than a retelling, Tam Lin was a character study and a loving reflection on liberal arts programs.
With that out of the way, I’d like to preface the rest of the review by saying that this book is definitely not for everyone. I was something of the “target market,” I suppose. I tend to prefer well-rounded characters to a rousing story. I also attended a small liberal arts college not so long ago, where I minored in English. My experience was recent enough that I could still appreciate and understand most of the near-constant literary references tossed about by Janet and her friends. I even knew kids similar to Nick and Robin. Thus, the whole book filled me with longing for days gone by. It left me feeling wistful and maybe a little sad. For those reasons, I really enjoyed the process of reading it–more so than any book I’ve read in the past several months–and stretched my reading out so that the experience would last longer. This review is therefore going to be far less objective, and I fear less articulate, than many of my others, due to the simple fact that my opinions on this particular novel were based heavily on the feelings it evoked in me.
I can, however, understand how the references could try the patience of someone less familiar with them, or why some readers might not appreciate the eccentricities of Nick and Robin or of Blackstock traditions. If you’ve never attended college, or if it’s been a long time, the slow exploration of the ups and downs of college life–classes, homework, bad dining hall food, Janet’s rooming struggles, and so on–might read as tedious and frustrating. To sum up: Tam Lin is, in many ways, a love letter to English majors written by and about an English major. To a slightly lesser extent, it’s also a study of a very specific type of college experience. All of this is sprinkled with some very light fantasy and intrigue.
If that doesn’t sound like something you would be interested in, it probably isn’t.
I’ve spent a week trying to write the rest of this review, but I’m having trouble putting what I loved about this book into words. It was, as I mentioned above, it was mostly the atmosphere of it; it took me right back to my not-so-long-ago college days, and combined with its early-seventies setting, the sense of nostalgia seeped from every page. The prose itself is rather old-fashioned and descriptive, and I admit that it took me a chapter or two to get used to Dean’s style. Once I did, though, I ate it up. It baffles me that people on Goodreads have shelved this as a YA novel. It most certainly is not YA literature.
I also thought the characters were solid. Janet was opinionated, outspoken, and intelligent, and I enjoyed her passion for literature and the way she struggled with a roommate (Christina) who couldn’t appreciate her references. When asked why she would major in English, Janet says, “If the thing you liked best to do in the world was to read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal-arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?” (When asked about her post-college plans, she also says that she’ll just “go to graduate school and read some more.”) What’s not to love? Molly, her spunky and more-literary roommate, was also delightful. Their boyfriends–Nick and Robin, respectively–were quirky “theatre kid” types, though their charm began to wear thin (both for me and their girlfriends) by their junior year at Blackstock. And of course, Thomas Lane, a.k.a. Tam Lin. He didn’t seem as fleshed-out as the girls, but he also wasn’t as infuriatingly ethereal as the other classics majors like Nick and Robin, so that was nice.
Unfortunately, if you can’t connect with Janet, the rest of the book might be a wash for you. I prefer good characters to a good plot, as I said before, and I liked Janet quite a lot, so it worked for me.
That brings me to what I didn’t love about Tam Lin, why I’m giving it four stars instead of four-and-a-half or five, despite all the evocative moments within its pages. As a character study, I enjoyed it immensely. As a coming-of-age college tale, it was wonderful and charming. But as a retelling, it left me wanting. Dean crams almost every detail from the ballad into the last seventy-five pages, and she changes so little that I wondered, “Why even bother setting this story in the modern day?”
“But had I kend, Tam Lin,” she says,
“What now this night I see,
I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een
And put in twa een tree.”
In more Fairport Convention’s song, this is rendered, “Had I known Tam Lin” she said / “This night I did see / I’d have looked him in the eyes / and turned him to a tree.”
And in the novel, it’s:
“Oh had I known,” she said in her own voice, but with a wild note and a wilder accent … “Tam Lin,” she said, “what this night I did see,” and she looked back at Janet, “I had looked him in the eye and turned him to a tree.” (450)
The entire climactic scene is like that, in fact. It isn’t retold so much as it is elaborated on. And that’s fine, but given that it took four hundred pages to arrive at what was simply a fleshed-out but unchanged rendering of verses I already know quite well, I was a bit disappointed. I liked Janet and Thomas (though I never quite felt the chemistry between them), and I was ready for Dean to throw a fascinating twist their way after dragging it out for so long. Alas, it was not to be.
The other issue I had was the pacing. Janet’s freshman year at Blackstock lasts for some 300 pages, her sophomore year for just 70, and her last two combined for just shy of 80.
If that sounds like a lopsided story, it was one. I’m not saying that all Janet’s years ought to have been described in as much detail as her freshman year by any means. Those first three hundred pages set the tone for the rest of the novel and established the relationships and fine the details of life at Blackstock. I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps it could have been pared down to 200 pages to make room for a more in-depth and more creative retelling of the original ballad.
With those somewhat minor complaints factored in, I can still say that I had a wonderful time reading Tam Lin. I won’t hold my breath waiting to find a book that will give me a comparable reading experience.