Revisiting Not-So-Distant Memories, With a Twist of Faerie(Tales) – A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

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I consider myself one of the lucky ones when I say that I have some good memories of college. I know that a lot of people don’t, that there are plenty who look back at their high school years with more fondness, but in my case, it’s my time as a college undergrad that I look back upon with rose-tinted glasses – or glasses tinted as rosily as I think is appropriate, because I’m very much aware that that time wasn’t entirely perfect. Either way, I still think of it as a good period of my life, and if I could do it all over again, I think I would.

One of the best things that came out of that time was the friendships I made. Not all of those friendships last until today, but the few that do remain are pretty strong. Hope was one of the friends I made during that time who is still a part of my life today, and there’s been a great many times when we’ve reminisced on what it might have been like if the state of our friendship today had been the same as the state of our friendship then. We’ve both agreed that if we shared a dorm room, we might have gotten along very well indeed: we share the same taste in books, food, and people, and our personalities make the other relatively easy to live with. We share this amusing scenario of a dream wherein we room together in an enormous penthouse loft in some ultra-modern, ultra-cultured city, like New York or Seattle, while attending some really fancy university. We’d be taking different courses, and would have friends who weren’t mutual, but the currents of our lives would exist pleasantly alongside and commingle with the other’s.

It was because of the above scenario (plus the fact that our reading tastes overlap significantly) that Hope all but threw Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin at me, saying that if I loved her, and if I loved “Classics Boys”, I’d read it. At the time I was still getting through Pariah but it’s not often that Hope reacts with such enthusiasm to a book she’s just read, so I knew it would be more than worth my time.

However, I was not prepared for the fact that reading this book would be the equivalent of getting run over by a truck – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

Tam Lin is part of The Fairytale Series, a set of books that take old fairy tales and folklore, spun into something new by a host of notable genre authors. As can be inferred from the title, Dean takes the old Scottish ballad titled Tam Lin, and uses it as the base for a story that is not just a new take on an old story, but also a love letter to one’s youth and college life. The protagonist is one Janet Carter, a freshman at Blackstock College, where she’s determined to finish with a degree in English once she’s done, and perhaps continue on to graduate studies if she feels like it. While there she experiences everything college has to offer: stress, friendship, love, and college legends, all at more or less the same time.

Now, there are a handful of caveats that the reader may encounter when picking up this book. The first is that it’s long: for some people, that’s enough of a problem already. If length is not a problem, then the next caveat might be slow plot buildup, because Dean really takes her time to build up everything up to the story’s climax. The third caveat is that it’s a novel which focuses on an English major who is friends with Classics majors, and so there’s a lot of material here that might go right over the head of someone who didn’t major in those subjects, or has no interest in them at all. Any of those three, in any combination, are the primary reasons why a lot of reviewers have either given up on it entirely, or have chosen to give the book negative reviews.

For my part, though, those three caveats are the three primary reasons why I kept on reading this book in the first place. I also think that there’s a reason Dean takes the approach she does, but it does take some patience – and, all right, some small interest in literature – to truly appreciate what, precisely, she’s done.

Now, it must be said that my opinion is colored by the fact that I am what would be considered an English major (though at my university the course is termed, correctly I think, as “Literature,” because we study more than just the typical English-language classics). I am familiar with many of the writers and works Dean mentions in the novel, even if there are plenty I’ve never heard of before, or have only a vague memory of. And I suppose it’s this familiarity, this interest in these works, even if I haven’t even heard of some of them until now, that drives much of my enjoyment of the admittedly slow build-up that is Janet’s first year in Blackstock.

The same can be said of Hope, who, as I mentioned earlier, practically threw this book at me as soon as she was done with it. She doesn’t have the same kind of formal training as I do when it comes to studying literary works, but she has a depth and breadth of reading that exceeds mine, and she shares the same kind of interest and appreciation as I do for the works Dean mentions and quotes from. It also helps that she has a character to parallel her in the novel: if I, as the Literature major, parallel Janet, then she, as the Biology major with an immense fondness for reading, parallels Molly.

That’s another thing that drove my enjoyment of this book: recognizing not only myself in the protagonist, but seeing a good friend of mine in one of the other important characters. That sense of recognition is, I’m sure, one of the main reasons why I love this book as much as I do, especially since it fulfills, in a vicarious manner, the thing that Hope and I have talked about in wistful tones every now and then: the chance to experience what it would be like being roommates in college. To be sure, reading about it in Tam Lin is a pale shadow of what it would actually be like, but as far as sharing experiences go, it’s certainly a lot more accessible than going back in time and tweaking the paths of our respective lives so that we wind up attending the same university and sharing a dorm room.

That pleasure of recognition extends to the works Dean makes use of throughout the book. When Janet mentions a list of books she’s brought with her from home, the first thing I did was look those books up – and these aren’t even the works she’s supposed to be studying as an English major, just books she brought along with her to read for pleasure. As the book goes on and more works and more writers are quoted and referenced – Shakespeare and Keats are just two of the most-quoted and most referenced – the pleasure of recognition became a very fun game, and, more importantly, a key in laying down the groundwork for the concluding events of the novel.

Which leads me to another complaint that a lot of reviewers have about the plot: how the ending supposedly feels too sudden, and that all the literary references are “pretentious”. Regarding the latter, I think that anyone who calls Dean’s constant allusions and quotation of literary works pretentious is either too lazy to broaden their reading horizons to include such works, or else is trying to cover up for the fact that they did not think to use those allusions in the way Dean intended them: as clues for what happens at the end. This is where being a Literature major (for my part) or being a reader with a very deep and very wide experience of reading (as in Hope’s case) really helps out, because it is in the literary allusions and references in the first three-fourths of the novel that Dean lays down the clues that make it clear what happens at the end. It’s easy to miss them if one gets lost in enjoying the slice-of-life nature of that part of the novel (as I did), or if one is simply missing them entirely due to a lack of familiarity with them, or one simply didn’t think to use them that way – though honestly, how someone could have missed that is rather puzzling once one reaches the novel’s midway point. At that point it’s made quite clear that something isn’t quite right (though sharper readers will pick it up much earlier than that), so I rather think only the dullest or most impatient of readers will miss all the clues entirely.

Overall, Tam Lin is an extraordinary book: entertaining and delightful in some rather unexpected ways, while at the same time feeling like the book equivalent of a cold day in bed: something to curl up in while ignoring the rest of the world, if only for the book’s duration. However, it is not a book one can simply rush through and be over with in a few hours, no matter how quickly one might read. It is very much like a stern, but efficient, teacher: rewarding for the patient and the attentive, while punishing for the impatient and the sloppy. Pamela Dean knows her ideal readers, and like any writer worth her salt chooses to write with those ideal readers in mind. The question is whether one is part of that intended audience or not, and those who are not are free to leave as they choose – and miss out on all the wonders and joys of what has to be one of the finest stories I’ve read in a very long time.

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