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Tam Lin

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In the ancient Scottish ballad Tam Lin, headstrong Janet defies Tam Lin to walk in her own land of Carterhaugh . . . and then must battle the Queen of Faery for possession of her lover’s body and soul.

In this version of Tam Lin Janet is a college student, "Carterhaugh" is Carter Hall at the university where her father teaches, and Tam Lin is a boy named Thomas Lane. The book is set against the backdrop of the early 1970s.

468 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1991

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Pamela Dean

35 books171 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 604 reviews
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
January 4, 2019
Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is one of those books that some people love and others can't stand. I happen to love it, but ... it's different, mostly a fairly straightforward story of a girl's college days, with just a few brief glimpses of magic around the edges.

This is a modern-day retelling of the old ballad of "Tam Lin." Here's one version of the old tale of Janet, the pregnant girl who tries to save her love from the Queen of Faerie. I suggest reading it before you read Tam Lin, to help you catch the many subtle clues and hints that tie this novel to the original ballad.


This version of the story follows Janet's life and times at a small liberal arts college, beginning as a freshman and going up to Halloween of her senior year, and her many interactions with her roommates and friends. There is a fantasy element to this story, but the magic creeps up extremely slowly until it burst into full bloom at the very end of the book - and I do mean the very end.

If you're expecting a novel where magic and fantasy fill the entire story, or if you have little patience with reading about theatre and the arts and the college students who live and breathe them, this version of Tam Lin is not for you. (I suggest The Perilous Gard instead.)

However, if you don't mind a book where the fantasy element is much more subtle and is woven into a story about college life and liberal arts majors who put their hearts into plays and walk around randomly quoting Shakespeare and the like to each other, there's magic, along with a lot of wit and humor, to be found in Pamela Dean's Tam Lin.

Content advisory: Nothing explicit, but several of the characters sleep with each other as college students typically would.
Profile Image for Anna.
126 reviews5 followers
April 10, 2009
If you can get over the fact that this is some sort of retrospective paean to Carleton College and the author peggy sue's (whatever that phrase is) herself on to the protagonist, you'll enjoy the book. It's somewhat irritating in that everyone in the book is incredibly boring (and the book largely seems to be about how people in college get into really boring sexual relationships but they're having SEX, so apparently it's super adult and interesting) but then after 8000 pages, all the relevant action takes place on pages 8001-8011 and then you spend a couple of hours flipping back through the whole book to see how the puzzle fits together. And then you never read it again.

Tam Lin is basically a modern re-telling of the Legend of Tam Lin. The characters are one dimensional, Janet is REALLY annoying and everyone is incredibly pretentious. I mean, I have an arts underground background myself and I don't know a SINGLE person who spouted poetry at me. Every last one person is some version of Elfine from Cold Comfort Farm...except I don't think Pamela Dean was trying to paint a funny caricature. They don't love one another, convey any sense of passion-nothing. It's hard to explain-I found the plot fascinating (in the sense that the creepy, foreboding nature of faerie is pretty well developed) but I didn't really like a single character. I thought they all acted like cardboard cutouts.
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews315 followers
February 17, 2012
I've read 200+ pages and I'm throwing in the towel. So far, all that's happened is the main character, Janet, has gone to class. Romantic poets and playwrights have been discussed, bunk beds have been dismantled, a bust of Schiller has been stolen, bowls of tapioca have been eaten, the merits of various college professors have been weighed, and everyone--EVERYONE--goes around spouting random bits of poetry and prose. After perusing a few other reviews, I feel confident that it's not going to get any better and the whole fairytale thing is tacked on at the end. I wanted fantasy and instead I got a novel as riveting as reading a college course catalog.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,126 reviews1,202 followers
August 9, 2012

I almost never give 1 star to books I've actually finished, because they're bound to have some redeeming quality that will at least bring the rating 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." (On reflection I've decided to not even put it on my "fantasy" shelf; it hasn't earned that.) 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's 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 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!
Profile Image for Melody.
2,629 reviews262 followers
March 30, 2009
Letting this one simmer a bit, I'm not ready to review it. Hell, I'm not sure I was ready to read it.


I loved the literary allusions. I found the characters, for the most part, quite believable- and the unbelievable ones were Myth Incarnate, so that was wonderful. The pacing was uneven and I'd have been just as happy had the last three years been as leisurely told as the first one. I'm familiar with the legend, and loved this treatment of it. Did I mention the rich literary trove this story is? "O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all whooping!"

The thing that I hated about this book is that it caused me no small measure of bitter regret. I try to never indulge in regret. I do not repine. My motto as regards regrets, like Lazarus Long's, has long been "When the ship lifts, all bills are paid." And this book, from the first page through the last, made me so sad for the chances I did not take, for the scholarship I scorned, for the English & Classics students I did not meet. It made me ache for something I threw away cavalierly and now can never have.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 31 books5,631 followers
June 12, 2020
I've read this book at least four times. It's one of my all-time favorites. When I went to college, I was very disappointed that not everyone ran around quoting Shakespeare and lived to read, as they do in this book. Also, my dorm was not haunted, which only made for more disappointment. Dean has created something wonderful here: a brilliant tapestry of the best of her college experience along with the best of Celtic folklore. A charming book, a fun book, a romantic book, a clever book, an intriguing book.

Reread 2020: First of all, I needed this. There's a freaking pandemic on, and race riots, and it's nice to get away to Blackstock college, circa 1973, and quote some Shakespeare. Also, I feel like different things stand out to me each time. This time I really was able to parse some of the more obscure quotes and what they meant, and it occurred to me that ALL of "them" were trying to get/keep a lover until they were sure they were safe. Strange and terrible, and I love them all in their way!
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews503 followers
April 6, 2013
Sing it, Sandy.

So, for those of you not in the know, Tam Lin is a Scottish ballad about the liberation of Tam Lin from his love and capture, the Queen of the Fairies. Oh, those pesky fairies again. Always getting involved in shit they shouldn't.

Pamela Dean writes a contemporary version of that story. Reading it is kind of exhausting.

Janet is a freshman at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Hey, I went to one of those too! Except I attended one in Missouri instead of Minnesota. There are a lot of similarities - the description of the campus, descriptions of campus life (says the woman who never actually lived on campus, but hung around enough to get an idea), and so much more. Our campus had a ghost story too.

But reading this book was sort of like being in school again. The first 300-some pages are about Janet's first year, while the rest of the book rushes by in the few remaining pages. This is sort of sloppy writing, but at the same time, isn't that sort of how college went for a bunch of us? It's like that first year took for.ever and then it was the second year and we were pros, and it all just flew by like that. Okay, maybe not.

There's a lot of talk about courses and majors and professors and little inside jokes about each. Again, not unlike college life. Except when you're living it, you're also going for a refreshing drink or taking a nap, and while you're reading this book it's just being hammered and hammered into your brain. Where was the fantasy? Where were the fucking fairies? I waited a really long time.

And so will you! The real magic doesn't happen until very late into the story, and you'll probably wonder if you missed it. It's there, so hang in there, but you'll probably want to throw in the towel way before you find it. Before you get there, you will know more about these undeveloped, 2D characters and their problems more than your own, and you will be so tired of hearing about birth control and sex and the Classics. It's a clunky story and so very little happens in such a large amount of space; honestly, I can't believe I read it all.

This is a 1-star read for me, except I'm feeling gracious and I can't say the book is entirely without merit. I thought of my own college days and wish I had done some of them differently, but then I'm also reminded of how insanely expensive it was, the 2-3 jobs I held in order to pay for it, the drama between friends that erupted occasionally, the politics of the college under a disgusting pig of a president. The college years are often sort of shallow, but I met my best friend there and we're still besties, and that says something. Because I get sick of people pretty easily (and they get sick of me too). So this book reminded me of some of that good stuff too.

I'm so glad to be done. Hanging in there was much like hanging in there when I went to school. For a long while I couldn't even imagine the end, and then all of a sudden the end was there. Voila.

Our ghost story was better.
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,029 reviews331 followers
August 21, 2022
O I forbid you, maidens a', That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh, For young Tam Lin is there.

These are the first lines of the best-known version of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, about a young man doomed to be given to hell by the faerie queen, and the young woman who saves him. It's a ballad whose fascination is enduring and which has inspired a number of retellings, of which Pamela Dean's is my favorite (followed closely by Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock).

Dean's version of the story is set in the Midwestern college of Blackstock (based on Dean's alma mater, Carleton). When Janet Carter enters college, she and her roommates, Molly and Tina, fall in with a small group of charismatic students, who are all closely connected with the Classics department and its Professor Medeous, an enigmatic but fascinating woman. As Janet wends her way through her four years at college, she learns more and more about Medeous and her followers and eventually finds herself entangled in their intrigues.

Dean spins Janet's story into the tale of Tam Lin in a slow, subtle, and gorgeous way. Hints of the unearthly begin early, from the ghost who throws books from the windows of Janet's dorm, to the mysterious horse riders she encounters on Hallowe'en. Yet much of the book's charm lies in its exploration of college life. It makes me nostalgic, even though I didn't go to a small college and my experiences were nothing like Janet's. The excitement of learning, the thrills of first love, the sheer difference of living on your own, away from your parents; these are all there.

I think I'm particularly drawn to the book because of its interest in literature and in the Classics. I love the bit where Janet and her friends are going through the steam tunnels below campus and come upon some graffiti on the walls: the opening lines of Homer's Iliad, in Greek, whereupon the Classics majors read it aloud and offer a couple of translations (one of which is Chapman's Homer, immortalized in the Keats sonnet).
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
June 30, 2016
How to review this? I have complicated thoughts. For a start: I love the ballad(s, there’s various versions), and I’ve read quite a few Tam Lin retellings now too. I expected to like Tam Lin, per Pamela Dean, quite a lot, because it came highly recommended and because of all the other things I was told were involved in this retelling — the ‘college as magic garden‘ aspect, primarily. And there’s a lot to like about that, because I did experience university as a magical garden in many ways, and I loved the utter focus on college, on learning, on cramming in everything you can. And that lovely feeling of finding something you didn’t expect to love through study and the right teacher, and all the possibilities, and…

It is a bit thick with references; though Jo Walton’s review suggests that it never leans on the references without explaining them, sometimes that led to the weird sense of being told the plots of all the plays mentioned within the novel. It’s a little bit infodumpy, even though it suits the whole atmosphere.

And I do like the portrayal of women being different and finding ways to get along anyway; young couples working out things like contraception and how to fit in seeing each other between their studies; men and women forming friendship groups together that aren’t completely rife with sex and jealousy (although there is some of that).

I liked the slow unfolding of it, too. It helped to know (again from Jo’s review) that the pacing of it is based on the pacing of the ballad (not sure which exact version), with the build-up taking most of the song and the denouement a verse: that is very much how it is in the novel, too. And I did like that I needed to watch for the references, keep my eyes open for the hints, that somehow ghosts and people who could’ve stepped out of Shakespeare’s plays came to seem normal.

It did frustrate me, though, how long it took for there to be payoff — how long it took for it to be confirmed as a fantasy novel, and not as, say, Janet being unstable (I knew it wasn’t that, but I apparently like my fantasy more overt), and how long it took for the two characters who turn out to be the main ones to actually really find each other. It took literally until 85% before I could see how the relationships could possibly work out like the ballad.

When it did come together, it was very satisfying. But it takes time, and you have to want to spend the time in the magical garden, spend time with these very young, very serious, very earnest characters who are just beginning to go about meaningful work and love and relationships. I can see why some people bounce off this one, I really can. I think without the strong recommendations I received plus my knowledge of the ballad (and my love for Fairport Convention’s version of it!), I might not have stuck it out.

Originally posted here.
Profile Image for Paxnirvana.
121 reviews15 followers
March 4, 2008
homigawds... This book is a lot of work. I don't mind a lot of work reading, sometimes, but cripes, I honestly don't care what classes she takes each quarter. If it moved the plot, I might, but it doesn't. No. It doesn't.

All the action(!) -- what little there is here, and by "action" I mean "plot" -- happens in the last 150 pages... which I've just reached.

Why did I pick this up again? Oh yeah... recs. *headdesks*


DONE. Finally. *sighs deeply*

Unfullfilling ending. Just. Ends. Gods. After slogging through all that "what class to take, what author to quote" pretentious shit I get 3 pages of shapeshifting and a disapproving stare from the villian. And no resolution to the personal shit.

Can I have the time I spent reading this back plzkthnxbai?!
Profile Image for Elena.
134 reviews14 followers
January 18, 2015
This reads like Dean's got something to prove. I’ve yet to see a character so undeservingly bullied by her author as Tina. She’s pre-med, she doesn’t read, she doesn’t have the intellectual weapons to be awed by Janet, but that hardly make her deserving of the oceans of irritation that Janet bestows upon her “healthy hair”.

Dean has her characters quote Keats and Shakespeare and the Iliad and lets the poets do the heavy lifting of giving flesh to their students. But the only bones in their bodies are to be their appreciation and quoting of said authors, to the point that I begin to wonder if they have anything of their own to say. Except about food. Oh, they have plenty to say about food. And as I’m talking about bones, I have one to pick with the afterword: “It would also be unwise, though certainly in accord with human nature, to identify the author with the protagonist.” Oh come on, Dean! Of course Janet is you! You wouldn’t be so defensive on behalf of someone else. And I don’t appreciate the pat in the head of “in accord with human nature”.

It’s been said that this book is for english majors, and it’s true: it’s for english majors in the same sense that “The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of Women” is for men. If not, you might wonder why you should so lightly be identified with your major in mostly unflattering manner. Or why these works you love should be so cavalierly lumped together (the greek, shakespeare and Scottish ballads have little in common), having not seen it in a college education. Perhaps you’ll be irritated that the book sees no need to acknowledge the laws of science even when it’s dealing with them, for example with unnecessarily magic pregnancies despite hormone treatments. Seriously, it's almost like she resents science. You’ll wonder why this lack of internal coherence extends to ghosts and english actors. And if you do, you will not to forgive the clear writing tics and the fact that the entire emotional scope of Janet seems to include merely interest, maniacal laughter, isolation and crankiness. In other words, she is a bitch.
Do not take me on faith:

“Janet managed not to laugh again; if that had been her own quilt, she would have been furious.”

"Look," said Janet, irritated, "if the thing you liked best to do in the world was 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?"

That is so not what college is about. I would dislike her solely on that sentence, but there's much more.

There also seems to be a problem in Dean’s writing of suspense, which is non existent, and humour, that she refuses to share with her reader. She doesn’t laugh at funny things or quips or jokes, but at situations that she herself creates and often explains after they have their laugh. The Skeat and the Schiller episodes elicit authentic explosions of hilarity in Janet; but the reader is left cold, along with the characters too out of the loop, uncool and antiglamour to know the college folklore.

PS:I liked Keats and Shakespeare and the ballad of Tam Lin. But Dean I didn’t. If this review feels ad hominem, that’s because it is. I’ve got nothing really against the basic events of the plot.
Profile Image for C..
496 reviews182 followers
January 24, 2011
The very worst thing about this book was the horrifyingly clunky prose, and the author's need to describe everything in exhaustive detail in the most boring way imaginable, like a fourteen-year-old's daily entries in her diary (I kept a diary a lot like this at fourteen - I think it might have been better written). I mean, almost the entire first half of the book described the first term of the first year of the protagonist's college degree. I was so close to giving up at that half-way point. I'm pretty sure I only continued out of hatred, or at the very least spite.

Yeah, so a large part of the reason I didn't like it is because I really have no interest in hearing about the minutiae of life at some liberal arts college in the midwest. I guess I can see how it could be nice for some people to remind them of their college experience (though I can't see how anyone could enjoy this prose), but I'm still in that college experience, and all it does is remind me of the worst things about it. The claustrophobia, the cliquey-ness, the incredibly boring rounds of dates. At least my university is in the middle of a bustling metropolis rather than the middle of nowhere. But I'm nowhere near being able to romanticise anything yet, and may never be able to. Secret: I'm kind of antisocial - more like Danny Chin than Janet, anyway.

I liked the second half of the book much better than the first, because the pace sped up. Though we could still keep up to date with the important events in Janet's life! Such as which subjects she was studying in which terms, and what she thought of them, mainly by reading sweeping and unsubtle statements that once again reminded me of nothing so much as a teenager's diary, when they've got bored or busy and can only be bothered updating once a month. "This term I have English with Mr Dunne. We studied Tim Winton's short stories, I didn't like them at first, but in the end I did." Any writer who is actually good should be able to incorporate this information in the text without having to state it outright.

In fairness, though, I should state that this book really really really made me want to study classical Greek. But this is not by any means the origin of this desire (reading actual Greek texts was that), it just reminded me of it. I also think it's fair to state that Dean really overuses the semi-colon and that was pretty annoying.

The last third of the book, however, was actually almost good, and I read the last chapter fast (it wasn't quite un-putdownable, but I didn't want to put it down, either). Probably this was because she finally started doing some bulk fantasy work, which was really what I was there for. I was disappointed, though, when I read the ballad reprinted at the end (I hadn't read it before), at how literally she interpreted it. It was just Tam Lin, transplanted directly to a midwestern liberal arts college. And I think Pamela Dean was there to write a book about the experience of studying at a midwestern liberal arts college, not to write a serious and interesting retelling of an incredibly powerful fairy tale (of the old sort, sans gossamer wings and little tutus). And frankly, that was disappointing.


I borrowed this from the library on impulse because someone mentioned it on a thread about the Best Book Evah, Fire and Hemlock (I thought it was Mariel but turns out it was someone I don't know). I hate it so far. I hate the way it's written and it's one of those infinitely annoying American books set in liberal arts colleges that seems to be set in a parallel universe very similar to our own, but where nothing quite makes sense. Even the language they use is different, and slighly perplexing. Like all that crap about propping up bookshelves with books?? And all the weird private jokes that seemed to be inserted in there, designed to be entirely comprehensible to everyone except me? And seriously, what's the deal with Peg? She's a sophomore, right? Sophomore means second year, right? (see, I've been carefully studying my vocabulary.) So why would a second year girl be so enthusiastic about making friends with first years? (sorry, I mean freshmen [If I was speaking out loud right now I would have leant heavily and scornfully on that word.].) IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE, but nothing about college life does, really, even in real life, which is why I moved out of the damn place, narrowly escaping insanity.
Profile Image for Trin.
1,786 reviews558 followers
June 4, 2007
Mixed feelings, once again! On the plus side, I absolutely could not put this book down. Dean makes the setting—a midwestern liberal arts college in the early '70s—come alive so completely that even when the biggest issue at stake is what classes Janet, our heroine, is going to take, I was utterly entranced. In fact, the straightforward college narrative is so convincing and so good that I would have been perfectly happy for the book to be about nothing but that. Which is not to say that I didn't like the undercurrent of weird supernatural goings-on—on the contrary, I LOVE that kind of thing. I love hints that something's not quite right, of something "off" just beneath the surface. I love that at the beginning of a story—but I must put the emphasis there on the beginning. In a 460 page novel, I think it's a problem if said undercurrents stay nothing but undercurrents until page 425. The revelation ends up feeling rushed; the mystical climax oddly tacked on. It got to the point where I kind of wanted Janet's rescue of her Tam Lin stand-in to remain metaphorical, not magical—an atypical response for me. Especially when all the characters seem so blasé about what's just happened. I was like, "Hello! You only had about 20 pages to get used to this! How are you back to discussing Pope already?"

That said, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book because I did enjoy the build-up so much, and because Janet is such a wonderful character. Also: it's a book where the hero's an English major! That, alone, makes me extraordinarily happy.
Profile Image for First Second Books.
560 reviews547 followers
August 5, 2014
I reread Pamela Dean's wonderful TAM LIN this weekend while traveling to my cousin's high school graduation party, because while this book is a fairy tale, it's also a book about how college life works (a land equally strange to me as fairyland was when I first read this book in high school).

This book is so good. It's phenomenal as an ethnography of the mysterious and fantastical land of college, with discovering first love and also learning new things -- and it's also a great reading list (and full of Shakespeare).
Profile Image for Molly.
33 reviews2 followers
August 27, 2012
A retelling of the 16th-century Scottish ballad by that name, set in a 1970s Liberal Arts college in Minnesota – because every story must eventually be retold to be about American teenagers.

I'm a big ballad nerd, so it was cool seeing how the novel fit into the story, but I have to admit, I really hated this book to begin with. The first few scene-setting chapters read like they were written expressly for the notional bookish 13-year-old girl, dreaming of college (and, in places, by her). Janet is insufferably judgmental, and the prose is terrible. Later, though, Janet gets told off a bit for her judgmentalness, and the prose settles down to merely unremarkable. It gets readable about halfway through; I really enjoyed the last third or so, and the final few chapters are downright thrilling.

I quite enjoyed some of the little details alluding to the ballad, like

The more heavy-handed allusions and constant quotations were also cool, although I found myself sympathizing heavily with Tina. I, too, am often surrounded by terrifyingly well-read people who are constantly quoting Great English Literature at each other, most of which I haven't yet read (but always feel like I should've) – but at least none of my friends are giant dicks to me about it. I suppose it's also worth noting that I'm 5'10" and female, and often feel quite uncomfortably tall, so Janet lost me hard very near the beginning, when she described Tina as "about six feet tall and look[ing] perfectly pleased with this condition". Gosh, how dare she be comfortable in her own body! Yeah, fuck you too, Janet.
Profile Image for Raya.
86 reviews4 followers
June 18, 2009
Instinct was telling me to stop at page 100. I should have listened, because this was a strange, strange book, the kind that makes you scratch your head and say “err…uhh…huh?” However, I was compelled to finish it, only because I wanted to find out how the story ended. Plot-wise, the story was actually pretty interesting, but the storytelling was inconsistent and erratic. She expends so much detail on what classes Janet is taking and what everyone is majoring in....did the reader really have to sit through all of Janet’s advisor visits? She might as well write about what the students ate for breakfast. Oh wait, she did. There were so many more interesting plot points she could have developed, like the ghost stories, Professor Medeous, even her relationship with Thomas. The majority of the novel focused on mundane college life. And then, all of a sudden, she throws in these fantastic, fairy-tale-esque elements in the last 50 pages of the book that were supposed to tie the novel together, but only made the novel feel even more disjointed. Not one I’d recommend.
Profile Image for GraceAnne.
658 reviews54 followers
June 22, 2008
I simply adored this book, but I confess when I tried to teach it (In YA Lit, in the Reimagined Fairytales and Other Magicks unit) most of my students just didn't get it. They didn't get the lusciousness of the school setting, nor the magic of the late fantasy. Ah well.
Profile Image for Mimi.
694 reviews191 followers
Want to read
August 15, 2017
Due to current events and the end of the world as we know it, this book is going back on the shelf again for now, to be continued at a later time. Hopefully.
Profile Image for Rosamund Taylor.
Author 1 book124 followers
May 31, 2022
In 1971, a group of remarkably erudite teenagers meet at a small college in Minnesota. Janet, our protagonist, loves English literature, and is ready to throw herself into studying and college life. She befriends a group of equally intellectual young people -- their discussions often focus on Shakespeare, Johnson, theatre, and the Classics. Though the Vietnam War is alluded to, it's never a topic of conversation. This is a campus novel with a few -- very few -- fantasy twists. Not a lot goes on in it, but it's immensely soothing to read, if you find plucky, wholesome adolescents and descriptions of classes, reading and the seasons soothing. Though the story draws from the Tam Lin ballad and legend, this doesn't really come into play until the final 60 pages, so mostly it's a sprawling and relaxing story about young love, campus life, and above all, studying. Weed is mentioned once, briefly. These kids skip class to go on nature walks or see Hamlet. I found it just right to read over a stressful weekend, but you might find it stupefying.
Profile Image for Annie.
926 reviews312 followers
September 26, 2019
Oh Lordy. I have such polarizing internal reactions to this book. Two sides of me are shouting at each other, just as passionately, and one side wants me to give it 5 stars and put it in my Favorites shelf, and one side wants me to give it 1 star and file it under Actual Trash.

Part of me really feels this book and these character. They are NERDS. Not just kind of nerds, I mean SERIOUS nerds. They dicker back and forth about the subtext about Shakespeare or Greek philosophy or postmodernist playwrights. This is me and many of my friends.

The other side of me is like . . . but these conversations aren’t interesting if you aren’t a part of them!!! They’re only interesting when you’re a participant.

Here’s what you need to know about Pamela Dean: Although possibly better known for this book, she’s also the author of the Secret Country series, which is amazing, and The Dubious Hills. The Secret Country trilogy is one of my favourite series of all time, and it’s infinitely more satisfying than Tam Lin. But there are some similarities.

This book certainly has the typical Pamela Dean wit (though in between it’s much more boring than her other writing). She can be insanely funny. And there are little subtle elbow-jabs/Easter eggs that are fun when you get the joke (i.e. “Vincentio [the family dog] had been named for his propensity as a puppy to hide in corners” —I think referring to Duke Vincentio, the “duke of dark corners” in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure).

Also, and this is important, Pamela Dean is a GENIUS and an unusually creative mind with very few literary inhibitions. Reading her books is nearly always a mind fuck because she is quite simply not like anyone else, and her books bear zero resemblance to any other books.

Some books bear the problem that they seem like recycled versions of other books, patchwork quilts of other books. Pamela Dean’s books suffer the opposite problem: they are so unfamiliar that they require enormous leaps of faith and understanding and suspensions of disbelief and most of all, they require the reader to be okay with feeling uncomfortable and a little bewildered.

You have to just sort of surf the tide rather than fight it. Just go with it. And it’ll crack your mind open just a little bit. I can’t say that for a lot of authors.

That said, this is almost definitely the weakest thing I’ve read by Dean.

--------PLOT SUMMARY--------

This is kind of like . . . an extremely esoteric Twilight. Girl goes to new school, meets a group of hot, mysterious, pale students, who all seem to have known each other forever. Like, FOREVER forever though. Except it’s:
”I forget how young you are sometimes.
“Because you’re as old as Methuselah.”
“Not quite.”

Rather than:
“How old are you?”
“How long have you been seventeen?”
“A while.”

Anyway, main character Janet is a neurotic, charming, book snobbish (though with excellent taste), whimsical freshman at Blackcock College in the Midwest, where her father is an English professor. About half of the book covers her freshman year, and the second half speeds through her sophomore, junior, and senior years.

Her roommates and friends are Tina (leggy, blond premed girl from Midwest) and Molly (basically Velma from Scooby Doo—sarcastic, clever, deeply nerdy).

They learn that the classics students have a reputation for being EXTREMELY weird (as a former classics major, can confirm: we ran around campus in togas, putting on fake animal sacrifices, and strapping long red balloons on to represent the engorged penis of Priapus). The weirdest of them all is Professor Medeous, a woman with red-black hair.

But nonetheless the three girls befriend and later date three of the pale, mysterious classics students (initially, Janet with Nick, Molly with Robin, and Tina with Thomas Lane).

Nothing much happens for ⅞ of the book, other than some witty conversation and lively philosophical debates.

And for most of the book, there is zero obvious magic or resemblance to the ballad Tam Lin, on which this is based. There are subtle things (like odd glances among the boys when asked how long they’ve known each other, or when the classics students and Professor Medeous silently ride on horses through campus on Halloween night every single year without explanation).

But boy, is it subtle! So subtle sometimes you wonder if you’re just misreading or overanalyzing things, but you’re not; it’s there.

--------THE VERDICT--------

Pamela Dean’s wit and uniquely subtle humour and worldview contribute a lot to this book, but it’s not enough to save it, not as it is. With a good editor to fix the paralyzed pacing and the way the action and magic are packed into the last eighth of the book, this could be a great book. But it just wasn’t given that shot. So it’s a a mediocre book, at best, and a rather boring book interspersed with gems of clever dialogue and perspective.
12 reviews
September 29, 2008
This is a book I wish I could have liked. And yet don't feel bad at all about loathing. I think that describing one of the male protagonists as madly attractive and then spending much of the book having to imagine him (unironically) with billowing, ruffled front silk blouses was beyond my capabilities to suspend disbelief. Madly attractive and billowing silk blouses on an early 1970's college campus doesn't work for me. Especially with the mad quoting of great literature. Jennifer Crusie quoting from movies made Welcome to Temptation hard for me to get into - this book was in many ways pure torture. And to my less than admiring eyes, the quoting took on a sense of intellectual masturbation which sadly (for it left me quite unmoved) was the most well developed and romantic part of what in many ways was a book about three couples' romantic relationship - all of which left me cold.

I can understand why many like the book; ultimately I think this book and I were just not a good fit for one another. And can I add just one more yuck for the billowing silk blouses? Oh, and a belated yuck for the longish hair and roguish beards that I also could. not. appreciate. at. all.

Superficial, I am sure. So, for the most part - you should probably disregard this review if the blurb about the book makes it sound at all interesting to you.

Profile Image for Francesca Forrest.
Author 22 books88 followers
Shelved as 'gave-up-on'
February 14, 2018
I really adored The Dubious Hills (review here), and I am sure I'll enjoy more stories set in that world. This version of Tam Lin, however, is not for me.

It's really a story about college friendships and the college experience, with just the barest whiffs of magic around the edges, if you sniff very, very hard. I'm pretty committed to the Tam Lin-as-Tam Lin story, and here it seems incidental.

The college scene is very authentic (the scene at the beginning where they're taking apart bunk beds could be nowadays), but I don't care for how clever everyone is about everything--it's all classics and English and theater and references to old books and translations. So... just not my thing.

I think Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary will be more my thing. That's the next one I'll try.
Profile Image for Cat.
830 reviews143 followers
May 30, 2007
I enjoyed the beginning SO much. Dean well establishes the texture of college life, and I especially enjoyed the roommate tensions. I thought I was going to love the book, but as time went on, I was worn down by the novel's structure...which delays plot gratification till the very very end. Also, the heavy-handed allusions outweighed even the pretentiousness of my college friends and me...which, at that point in life, was quite pronounced indeed. :-) Enjoyable, but okay rather than awesome. Starts to feel long.
Profile Image for Ygraine.
571 reviews
December 13, 2020
read in fits & starts over a couple of weeks, which i think strained the already v uneven seams of pacing & plotting that hold this book together; my brain kept slipping, sidling away, vague & distracted, and often feeling a little like i didn't want to meet the book's eyes.

but honestly, i think that discomfort is also the thing that compelled me to read to the end? until now, i'd never read something that could so gently and so mercilessly feed me my own memories until i had to step away -- mundane things, like the list of texts that i also studied at undergrad, the dining hall chocolate pudding with stiff, unreal-looking whipped cream, the clustered-in-dorm-room-tea-drinking, the basement wandering, the lady is not for burning, the finalist theatre of cruelty production to be avoided at all costs, the absolute sway held by thesps, the smallness of the world when you're only moving between university buildings, the floor-by-floor shifts in smells as you climb accommodation staircases !

but also structural, emotional things, the overconfident sureness of trying to convince everyone you already know who you are while very much still being in the process of deciding who you are, the uneven friendships you fall into, the unkindness and judgment and selfishness you feel ashamed of, the dizzying feeling of stretching your brain out in as many directions as possible, the way time & space blurs around what you're reading and writing and saying, the posturing and the uncertainty and the exciting, shining newness of everything !

i get why people find the dialogue contrived, the characters unconvincing, the plot meandering, & there were many moments where i felt v aware of the flimsiness of all three, where what i was reading felt Very Silly. but it also felt precisely Right. undergrad was definitely a v silly time in my life, and i said & did & was many things that feel ridiculous and transparent to me now, but felt crucially important and clever and real at the time. this book feels like a crystallisation of that double-awareness, like a sort of second sight -- both inhabiting that moment in your life, and also seeing it in memory?

anyway, i will maybe re-read it again some day, all at once, & see how much of this response is just a result of giving myself too much time to (over)think about it.
Profile Image for lucy.
173 reviews
October 10, 2021
finally finished this book. might have liked it better if i was an english major and knew what the hell they were referencing the whole time.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
775 reviews92 followers
February 3, 2015
I have thoughts. They will be written at some point.

I was in my mid 30s when I finally watched The Breakfast Club. I rally enjoyed it but I'm glad I didn't watch it when I was at high school; school was already something of a disappointment.

I read Tam Lin for the first time this year, 15 years after finishing my undergrad studies - yes, with a BA. I am really glad that I didn't read this before or during my studies. I thoroughly enjoyed university, but there was very little spontaneous Shakespeare and Milton and Keats quoting going on.

I've heard about this on and off over the years; Tansy is a huge fan. I didn't really have any idea of what to expect - I don't know the ballad on which it is based, and although I knew there was some Fae element I think I was expecting a kind of Tom's Midnight Garden experience, going in and out of fairyland? Or something. So it wasn't what I expected, but mostly in a good way.

Spoilers are hidden, if you're like me and not up on your faery-tinged-undergrad-learning love story!

(That is, it's a love story to undergrad learning. Although there are love stories in the novel as well.)

Like I said, I was expecting the fairy stuff a lot earlier than it actually turned up. To the point where I got to wondering that because the university experience was so exquisite, was that actually the fairy land? And Janet would eventually wake up? Or something? It was amusing to note the similarities in Janet's experience of college and my own, as well as the differences, some of which are temporal (25 years different), many I suspect are geographical (US expectations of a 'liberal arts degree' are very different from Australian ones... doing physical education? As a compulsory unit??... plus I will never, ever understand the necessity of rooming at college - and I lived in residence for two years), and most of them are of course fiction v reality. With the hindsight of my mid-30s, I enjoyed this fantastical take on college, while acknowledging just how unreal it was. I really liked the discussions Janet and co had around poetry and theatre and what to major in - those discussions can be, and sometimes were, glorious - as well as the fact that Dean includes in-class stuff, with good lecturers and bad. It did make me a little sentimental for my own experience, which I am definitely seeing with a rosy tinge these days. I was also interested in the fact that, published in 1991, it was set 20 years prior. By the end this decision made sense - Plus I suspect that many people look back on the early 70s rather romantically, as a time of liberation and so on.

I liked Janet. Yes, she's a bit spoiled, and she would almost certainly have driven me a bit mad if I'd met here at 18 - she's so confident in her own knowledge. But I admired that, too, and the fact that she struggles and overcomes. I liked that her friendships weren't always easy and that she acknowledged the necessity of working on them - even if she didn't always do it well; I'm a nerd so I definitely liked her dedication (mostly) to learning!

I can imagine reading this again. I would love to recommend it to young friends, but I don't think that in good conscience I can - not until they've finished at university.
Profile Image for Christina.
93 reviews6 followers
December 13, 2009
I tried really hard to enjoy this book, but my effort was in vain as I still found myself unbelievably frustrated with it.

As a non-English major, and someone whose upbringing and science background gave a limited understanding of the so-called classics, I felt intimidated, and ignorant each and every time the characters spewed poetically about various authors and their works. On quite a few occasions, the references were to works/authors that I'd never heard of, or knew only in passing. Was it really important to discuss for over 10 pages, the significance of the translated Iliad inscription in the tunnels below their building? Did it really add to the characterization, other than to show them as stuck-up academic snobs? The fact that Janet, the protagonist, would then look down on Christina for not being well-read, or sharing her love of literature, whilst not bothering to even TRY understanding her, also annoyed me. I realize that on some level, the author was trying to portray Janet as a self-centred snob, who couldn't appreciate anything or anyone who wasn't remotely like her, whilst also depicting her as a brilliant student, but it ended up alienating me as the reader. Not only could I better relate to Christina the pre-med biology student, but I also share her name.

Furthermore, the minute description of college life and of a liberal arts education was tedious to read. I don't care to know about the offerings of the college, nor to know the names of her profs, which classes she is taking, and the sequence of books they will be reading in each. Nothing of significance happened, other than the primary characters whining about the weather, school, or their love lives, yet it spanned hundreds of pages. It was like reading someone's diary, someone I had nothing in common with, and whom I didn't like very much. I kept hoping it would get better.

Yes, there were glimpses of foreshadowing throughout the novel, but they were so short and few between that they couldn't salvage the rest. It only started getting interesting in the last 100 or so pages, and then it was too short to really redeem itself. The idea that a Faerie Queen could hide her court in a small college, and the ramifications of this, is an intriguing concept, but one which I felt wasn't developed sufficiently. I would have liked to see certain things from different point of views, maybe gain a better understanding of why Thomas acted the way he did, when he tried to send a message through the play. Or maybe see more of the ramifications of the final confrontation.

In the end, I think that it wasn't the most elegantly told story, and that the fact that it was generally unfriendly to those without an extensive reading background, limited my understanding and appreciation of the book. Perhaps if I'd understood it better, I wouldn't have experienced such frustration and contempt whilst reading, and could have better enjoyed the experience, but that is not the case, and as such the multiple layers of frustration overshadow the layers of brilliance hidden underneath.
183 reviews16 followers
February 14, 2013
This is a book for English majors or people who wish they were English majors. A lot of people seem very disappointed and let down by this. I think it's okay for an author to write for such a specific audience, though I agree it's better if everyone understands who the book is written for first off. I knew this was more about people talking about books than the ballad retelling. The problem for me was not the lack of fantasy, just that I thought it wasn't a very good book about people talking about books. The author and the characters aren't really that clever or interesting in their reactions and ideas about books; it probably wasn't pretentious enough for me, really. The way the characters acted was pretentious, but the actual discussion was usually pedestrian and book club-ish.

The really big flaw was the charactersation. The readers who hated Janet seem to have discovered more personality in her than I ever did. The friends and boyfriends are interchangeable and there is no emotional charge in any of their interactions. To talk about the actual ballad aspect, Janet doesn't seem to actually have any impulse to save Thomas at all. I find it so hard to forgive authors who take what ought to be a deliciously emotive and interesting situation and let it fall soggily apart in their hands without any evidence they even tried to make something of it.

I suspect the book may owe its extra star to the sheer force of procrastination, which turned this book into a pageturner of an escape. Now I have to do what I was avoiding.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,618 reviews478 followers
April 24, 2009
I suppose there are several faults with Tam Lin. One would be justified, I believe, in saying that the book is over long and that at times the talk about relationships isn't very adult. In many ways, however, this book is really for those who love literature as well as the story of "Tam Lin" that the novel is based on.

In the original story that this novel is based on, an ordinary girl wins back her lover from the queen of faerie. This is what this novel is supposed to be about. If the characters had been super interesting, I don't think I would've seen them as ordinary, and it would’ve changed the story. The book at one level seems to be about ordinary people trapped in a strange and brief extraordinary adventure.

What I really remember about the book, however, isn't the plot. It's the discussions in the book about literature. In a large part, this book is for readers, readers who LOVE literature (in particular, medieval). There are discussions and comments about great works, and these works are chosen with care. There is a reason, for instance, why Dean chose to use The Romance of the Rose. Every time I read it, it is that aspect of the novel that comes with me, and it is that aspect of the novel that draws me back.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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