Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

Recommended by: I vaguely recall seeing the title and author of this book inside an IM window, so I’m going to go ahead and say that somebody told me about this book, but I don’t actually remember.  Anyway it’s a reread.  I’m giving it four stars because I enjoy it so much.  It maybe doesn’t deserve it.  I have lost all perspective.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty pleasure.  If you are an intellectual snob at whatever level, this book will appeal to you; but if you feel quite guilty about being such a snob, you might find that you can’t enjoy it.  However, although I feel faintly guilty about being an intellectual snob, I don’t feel guilty enough to deny that there is a part of me that wishes that everyone around me had read all the same books I have.  Think how nice that would be.

This is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin” set in a college where everyone has read all the same books everyone else has (lucky them), and they are always quoting Keats and Hamlet at each other.  Which I believe I would find rather trying.  But!  But, but, but!  The heroine (Janet) goes out with a chap called Nick who sets T.S. Eliot poems to (good) music of his own devising; and that I would not find trying in the slightest.  Though I believe he does Wallace Stevens as well, and I hate Wallace Stevens.  Hate him.  Hate.  Hate.  Hate.

Well, anyway, I am fond of the story of Tam Lin.  I like how Janet goes where she’s not meant to and tells all the knights at home to go away and rescues her true love with much fortitude and does not seem to feel terribly anxious about the whole affair.  I like my Fairport Convention song of “Tam Lin”, which is one of the few songs that I almost always put on CDs of songs to sing in my car — it’s a very good car-singing song, much like “O Valencia” and “Sheila Take a Bow”, and I never skip over it when it comes up on shuffle.  I like Fire and Hemlock absolutely vastly, enough to buy the pretty bubble-cover copy when I was in the UK even though I already had a copy at home, and I will review it here when next I reread it.  So I was disposed to like this, as I already knew the story was going to be brilliant.

Tam Lin is not an ordinary kind of fairy-tale retelling, as it spends a lot of time on college-related (but not Faerie-Queene-related) things like what courses people are taking and what they are all about, and why Janet’s roommate is so impossibly tedious that she hasn’t even read “The Hunting of the Snark”, that ridiculous girl! (so you see what I mean about intellectual snobbery)  This (the college things, not the Snark things) is actually rather diverting, and there are just enough mysterious events that you mostly remember there’s a plot going on, in addition to all the romance and reading of books.

I found this book rather unputdownable the first time I read it, particularly as the end drew near, to the extent that I did something I never, ever, ever do at university, which is I read it during my Christian and Byzantine art class, under my desk, even though I was sitting up in the front row in plain view of my professor.  This time, having acquired it through PaperbackSwap, I’ve been reading quite at my leisure, during commercial breaks while watching Guiding Light and House, under my desk during my CLST class (yes, yes, but I don’t sit in the front and it’s not necessary for me to take notes in this one anyway), while I munch on my mid-day quesadilla, and so forth.  It is still friendly and pleasant.  If it had not come up at an opportune time on PaperbackSwap, I might well have bothered to spend money in order to obtain a used copy.

I would say ultimately that it isn’t as pulled-together a book as it might be.  Fair enough, as “Tam Lin” isn’t an awfully pulled-together ballad, but still there were some plot kinks that aren’t well explained, things that don’t iron out nicely once everything sorts out at the end.  Good fun nevertheless.  I wouldn’t peddle this book to others, but I do enjoy it myself.

P.S. I really hate Wallace Stevens.  I really, really do.

P.P.S. Whenever I read “Tam Lin”, I sort of wish my name were Janet.  But then I suppose very few people would sing “Tam Lin” to me, whereas hordes of people would sing “PLANET SCHMANET JANET” to me.  In fact I know this to be true because I have a friend called Janet and I have always said PLANET SCHMANET JANET to her and never “Tam Lin” one single bit.  So.

P.P.P.S. Sometimes when I feel that words or phrases I like are being underused (such as “cross” to mean angry and “upset” to mean “tipped over”), I work them into my everyday conversation, thus returning them to (my) everyday life.  I have long felt that I would love to bring back the exhortative form “Do you” (“Do you ask Mumsy whether we may pour ketchup into the back of the piano.”), which the Robin character uses sometimes in this book, but I know that it would just make life difficult for my auditors.  And, in fairness, if someone used it to me, I imagine I would be perplexed too, as it has fallen out of general usage and I would not be expecting someone to use it.  Oh well.

  • I loved this book. Of course I missed many of the references to lit and Shakespeare, but enjoyed them nevertheless. I didn’t feel like it was being snobbish. Well, maybe a bit elitist. Is that the same thing?

  • jennysbooks

    Well, I meant intellectually snobby. I wasn’t crazy about how everyone felt superior to people who didn’t recognize quotations. Not everybody likes to read. But I still did enjoy the book a lot. In fact I might read it again.

  • Schatzi

    About the snobbishness, I think it nicely reflects how “OMG WHEE, I’M A SMARTY INTELLECTUAL-PANTS NOW THAT I’M IN COLLEGE” some people get when they, uh, go off to school. And it also captures the feeling of finding people who do like and read the same things you do, and those people can be few and far between in high school.

    I’ll probably re-read this again sometime soon because I love love love it. I blame Pamela Dean for my being a Classics major at a tiny Midwestern liberal arts college for a time.

    • I definitely agree people can get a little contact high in college when they meet like-minded people – but even with that, I found these characters aggravating. Which didn’t stop me from reading Tam Lin twice when I had it out of the library, and then getting myself a copy on Paperbackswap, and then rereading it several times thereafter until it became an official comfort book. 😛

  • Schatzi

    I have to be pretty lenient with some of them, though, since they (Nick, Rob, etc) had very good excuses for their excessive quotation (INSERT MASSIVE SPOILERS HERE); Janet was the intolerant one, far more so than anyone else, but she did develop over time. And remember, Janet got along with Molly very well simply because Molly read some of the same books (mostly children’s lit), though until they took Shakespeare together, Molly wasn’t much for quotation. The fact that Tina hadn’t read things wasn’t the major problem, it was that she was equally intolerant of many of the books Janet loved, calling them silly.

    There’s a wonderful site I encountered once, The Annotated Pamela Dean, with wonderful references for Tam Lin, but I don’t think it’s up anymore.

    • Oo, that would be nice, annotations. That would be helpful for me. I could be fond of the characters who quoted Milton, and sneer at the ones who quoted Wordsworth. But I see your point about Molly and Tina – I think I’m reacting strongly against them, because part of me thinks it would be so nice to hang out with a bunch of snobby bookworms for a while, and that makes me feel snobby. 😛

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