Normally I really don't like doing reviews that are going to end up negative. I always feel negative reviews show too much of a reviewer's personal opinion and not enough plain facts. However, "Tam Lin" by Pamela Dean is exactly the sort of book some of you are going to pick up some day, so I feel I ought to at least share my thoughts. I'm going to try to be as unbiased as possible, so that you can make an informed decision.
"Tam Lin" is of course a retelling of the old fairy tale. It is set in the early 1970's at a Midwestern University. As far as premise's go, it's a pretty good one, and the reveal at the end is actually a good explanation it's just...
Well, that's skipping ahead.
The story revolves around Janet, an English Major, and her roommates and their boyfriends from the Classics department. Their four years of college are peppered with tumultuous romances, ghost sightings, bagpipes, and a couple of mysterious professors that are oddly possessive of their students.
First of all, be warned. This is a secular college in the 1970's. The age of Free Love has just reached maturity and Planned Parenthood and the Pill are common names tossed around between young women. The book was written 20 years ago, so there are no descriptive sex scenes, but as anyone who has read Tam Lin knows, a retelling that faithfully follows the original tale has to deal with one unwanted pregnancy.
So in that regard I don't mind those references, and it is written appropriately enough that any college age student should be able to read it without being scarred for life. However, abortion and taking the Pill are regarded as completely okay by all of the main characters, a fact which may bother some of you way more than the story is worth reading.
Secondly, the book is chock full from beginning to end of alludes to English lit. And I'm not understating. Just about every page has a reference to Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tolkien, or the Norton Anthology. Don't know what the Norton Anthology is? That's a good sign that the lit references are going to send your head spinning. I majored in English Lit in college, so I was able to stay afloat, but I simply don't see how anyone who isn't a Lit Major could possibly put up with it.
Thirdly, although the premise is good, I personally thought the execution was poor. While the writing style itself is quite excellent, Dean's story suffers from a lack of the understanding of what plot is and how it progresses. Key points in the narrative when certain things should have been revealed are completely ignored. I spent most of the book going "when is something actually going to happen!?!" and when something finally did happen, it was at the very end and seemed to have almost no set-up. I absolutely did not guess the secret in the Classics department, and not because Dean is a good writer and hid it cleverly, but because she barely tried to hint at it all.
So, there you have it. It frustrates me and saddens me because there really are the makings of a great novel in this book. And yet those three bits hold it back and keep it from succeeding.