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Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

tam linTam Lin was the first book I read in my ReReadathon efforts, and I’m very glad that I did. As you may be able to tell, I’m really interested in retellings of Tam Lin. Dean’s version is one that I’ve read and really, really liked. But unlike Fire and Hemlock or The Perilous Gard, which I’ve read over and over, I’d only read Dean’s Tam Lin once. It was clearly time to change that. And it paid off, since I would now put this retelling in my top three, along with the two I just mentioned.

Dean’s Tam Lin is an interesting beast in that the title is pretty clear about what’s going to happen. No coyness here. And yet, for most of the book, the focus is firmly on Janet’s college experience. She goes to class, she wrestles with her advisor, she makes friends, she thinks deeply about things, she grows up. It is almost incidental that her advisor has dried herbs outside her door and that something is clearly Not Right with the Classics department at Blackstock College. And in fact, part of what I really liked about the book was the fact that this college life is so well drawn. It just so happens that there are several other books about colleges that I really enjoy(Gaudy Night and A College of Magic spring to mind), and I loved Janet’s ruminations on life, on friendship.

It also occurred to me that this book would be an excellent one to hand to New Adult fans who are willing to consider a fantasy that takes place in the early 1970s. I think it really captures the best of what I understand NA to be–the examination of this time of life that is both fundamentally important for a lot of people, and eternally fleeting. You make friends, you live four years together, and then you scatter. So much of what Janet thinks and feels about college, about academia–both its joys and agonies, and about life really rang true to me.

So it’s only gradually that the college side of the book gives way to the fairy tale side. There are hints of it from the beginning, in the Blackstock ghost, in Melinda Wolfe’s herbs, in the way Robin and Nick talk. There’s enough that, even without the title, the reader would easily suspect that something is up. But very little page time is actually spent on the plot of the song. I suspect this might frustrate some readers, but I personally found it very powerful. Fairy tales, and I am including ballads like “Tam Lin” in this, usually don’t contain personalities exactly, or motivations. Dean has countered that by spending most of the book building up characters and motivations so that by the time the plot happens, it feels almost inevitable.

There’s also the fact that a heavy strand of the story is Janet’s friendship with her two roommates, Molly and Tina. This relationship is, in its own way, just as important as any of the romantic relationships. They don’t always get on together, but this only contributes to the depth of the depiction. Of course you don’t always get on with your friends, even the true ones, even the ones you keep. And the three girls are very different–part of the arc of Janet’s character is her coming to appreciate Tina, who is not her kind of person, whereas Molly is. And yet, almost from the beginning of the book I couldn’t imagine them without each other. I love good depictions of female friendships (as some of you PROBABLY know), and this certainly falls into that category.

Moreover, I appreciated the fact that the fairy parts were left mysterious. We don’t really learn how or why things happen; in fact, after I finished I realized that I’m not even sure if several characters were fairies, or humans, or what. But, since I often feel that fairies and fairyland get overexplained in books, I thought this was MARVELOUS.

What I think it comes down to in the end is the feeling I got, the same feeling that I got when reading Jo Walton’s Among Others: this is a familiar country, these people are my people. I didn’t so much identify with Janet as place her in the realm of someone I would be friends with (if only she wasn’t fictional). She thinks the way I tend to, in half remembered quotations. She reads the books I read. I don’t always agree with her, but I am always glad to hear what she says.

Basically, as far as I’m concerned, Tam Lin is a wonderful college story, and a wonderful fairy story. And the ways in which the two overlap make for a book that has both freshness and depth. In case it’s not clear, I love it.

Quotes from Tam Lin that I shared on Tumblr

While I ultimately ended up really disagreeing with it, this is a very interesting take on the book, with lots of interesting comments.