Part of a series of retold fairy tales edited by Terry Windling, Tam Lin is based on the Scottish folk ballad about a maiden who saves her enchanted lover from the queen of fairies (the ballad also formed the basis of an important subplot in Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men). Dean moves the story's action to a fictional Minnesota liberal arts college in the early 70s. Janet, the maiden, is Janet Carter, an English major. Tam Lin is an older student named Thomas Lane. The queen of fairies is the brilliant and remote Professor Medeous, head of the Classics department. As Janet makes her way through her first three years of college, occupied with her studies, with negotiating new and sometimes prickly friendships with her roommates, and with an affair with a Classics major name Nick Tooley, she slowly becomes aware of an undertone of weirdness centering around the Classics department and Medeous herself--rumors of debauchery, Nick's secretive behavior and occasional disappearances, the 1897 suicide of a student, whose ghost is said to haunt the college. Finally, the cumulative weight of all this oddness opens Janet's eyes to the reality of her world, just it time for her to act to save her now-lover Thomas.
In Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy of fantasy, Tam Lin would probably fall in the category of the liminal fantasy--works in which the very existence of the fantastic is in doubt, and in which the boundaries between the mundane and fantasy worlds are fuzzy and difficult to distinguish. Blackstock College is just such a dubious magical realm, whose inhabitants don't even realize that they have crossed into wonder. It has been intruded upon by Medeous and her court, but that intrusion has been so subtle, and its effects so easily folded into the general weirdness of campus life, that they are easily ignored until very near the novel's end. Dean's descriptions of college life, particular in the first half of the novel, which describes Janet's freshman year almost down to the individual lecture, emphasize its foreignness. It has its seasonal rites--registering for classes in the gymnasium at the beginning of the year, queuing for good dormitory assignments at its end--and its rituals, which sometimes rub right up against the occult, such as students stealing and hiding a bust of Schiller, or playing the bagpipes at midnight on Halloween. The effect is to make Blackstock seem like a world--a fantasy world--onto itself, however porous its boundaries, and thus to mingle the magic of fairyland, of the weirdness and rituals Medeous brings to the campus, with the magic of college life. (Of course, Dean's descriptions may have seemed especially odd to me, separated as I am from Blackstock not only by time, geography, and the difference between a liberal arts and polytechnical institution, but by the fact that most Israelis start university in their early twenties, not their late teens.)
The immersion in the mundane details of Janet's life on campus, even as the reader notices, and becomes increasingly frustrated by, hints of the wondrous, is Tam Lin's most impressive accomplishment, but it is paralleled by just as deep an immersion into Janet's academic career. The idiom of Janet's life is literary. She speaks and thinks in literary allusions, as do most of her contemporaries, and the plot is advanced as much by her academic progress as by her personal development. Which makes a certain amount of sense given the decision to cast the fairy queen as a professor. A running theme throughout the novel are the repeated attempts by Medeous's acolytes, chiefly Janet's advisor Melinda Wolfe, to get her to switch to the Classics department, and Janet's own experiences in Medeous's classes can be read as a sort of enchantment--the enchantment of literature, and of a brand new branch of scholarship opening up before her--to which her reaction is ambivalent, both tempted and repulsed.
It is also through literature that Janet's personal life is changed--the plot is underpinned by three theatrical performances, each of which heralds and sometimes sparks a major transition in her life. The first, a double production of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead near the beginning of her freshman year, cements the relationships from which Janet spends the rest of the story trying to disentangle herself--Nick's girlfriend, Thomas's friend--and launches Janet into Medeous's outer orbit, from which vantage point she can observe her and her adherents' weirdness without truly understanding it. The second, a student production of The Revenger's Tragedy masterminded by Thomas in which he casts a Medeous lookalike as the villain, brings him and his conflict with Medeous more sharply into focus, and ratchets up the novel's tension. the last, a production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning (an earlier reading of which persuaded Janet she wasn't truly in love with Nick) at the beginning of her senior year, sparks Janet's romance with Thomas, and sets the stage for the novel's climax and Janet's confrontation with Medeous.
This, however, is the kind of observation that only occurs in hindsight. The plays themselves, and Janet's reaction to them, are so little signposted, so clearly of a piece with the rest of her life that they seem like just another entry in the litany of activities that makes up the bulk of the novel--Thursday: had lunch with roommates, Friday: went to a play, Saturday: wrote term paper. This is quite clearly a deliberate choice on Dean's part, one which suits the opaqueness which characterizes the whole novel. Tam Lin seems to beg a rereading, littered as it is by overheard snatches of conversation, cryptic comments, and private jokes, which only resolve upon the revelation of the precise nature of its fantastic aspect. That revelation, however, is repeatedly deferred. Several times--when she encounters another manifestation of the fantastic, or comes in closer contact with Medeous herself--we anticipate the opening up of Janet's world and the transformation of the plot, only to be disappointed. Through frequently mentioned, Medeous doesn't show up until 300 pages in, and even then it's in her guise as an educator. Frustrating as it can be, this deliberate confounding of expectations can have positive effects--the requisite scene in which the protagonist and her friends try to argue away the fantastic is missing, since by the time they recognize the kind of story they're in the situation is too real to be denied.
As hard as Tam Lin works to frustrate our expectations in its structure, it seems to work even harder to meet them in its substance, which is anticipated in a scene in which Janet is assigned to read the first chapter of Emma and guess its ending--"Janet had no idea; neither did Molly; but Tina consented to read the chapter and said, immediately, "Emma marries Mr. Knightley, of course"". The ease with which Janet couples up with Nick at the beginning of the novel, and her frequent confrontations with Thomas, leave no doubt as to which one of them she's to end up with, and the constant harping on the issue of birth control is like the gun on the wall in the first act. Despite Janet's own preference for poetry over prose, Tam Lin itself is quite clearly following in Jane Austen's footsteps. It is a comedy of manners, a romance driven by humor and wit rather than melodrama, and a very entertaining one at that, but it is lacking that depth of insight that made Austen's novels more than effervescent baubles. Clever and witty as it is, Tam Lin is a shallow novel, with little beneath its surface.
Janet is an unbelievable eighteen year old, not only too erudite but too worldly--too certain of her tastes and interests, too thoughtful in her interactions with others, too diligent and established in her scholarly habits, and much, much too confident. She seems more like a grad student than a college freshman, as do most of her friends. In scenes such as a party in which Janet recites "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" to an enraptured audience they create the impression not of a group of young people just beginning to separate their own likes and interests from the cultural morass in which they grew up, but of people who have already found their own subcultural bubble and have no interest in looking beyond it. Almost impossibly, it takes 200 pages for someone to mention popular music, and with the exception of a character who watches a Star Trek rerun once, contemporary movies and TV are never brought up, not because Janet and her friends are learning to like more rarefied things but because they seem never to have had any interest in popular culture to begin with. There are explanations for some of the characters' knowingness--Janet's father is a Blackstock professor, from whom she's learned her love of literature, and at least some of her friends are a great deal older than they seem--but not for all of it, and certainly not for their nearly uniform, penetrating understanding of human nature.
[The Lady's Not for Burning] contained two sets of lovers. If you were eighteen and had never been in love before, you could be excused for not saying or thinking or feeling the sort of things that Thomas Mendip and Jennet Jourdemayne said and thought and felt: Thomas and Jennet were entirely grown-up and had, so far as Janet could see, been through two separate versions of hell; no comfortable eighteen-year-old could expect to be as they were when they fell in love.Though it's in keeping with the novel's themes that Janet comes to this realization through literature, it beggars belief that she has enough insight into herself and into romance in general to express that epiphany so clearly (this also undercuts the pleasure of reading a novel whose characters so frequently express themselves, and are changed by, literature). The most realistic depiction of a college student in the novel is Janet's roommate Tina, who is intelligent and driven, but also self-centered and, which seems like a far greater crime to the other characters, conventional in her tastes and attitudes ("She's so damned romantic ... in the most prosaic way imaginable." Thomas says of her when they date). Tina is, as she should be at that stage in her life, an unformed person, and far too wrapped up in her problems to to understand herself, and express that understanding, as perfectly as the other characters do. The result of this tendency to constantly spell out the characters' state of mind is not a bad novel--in fact it might be the reason that Tam Lin is so effortlessly readable, as so little work has been left to the reader--but perversely enough it dehumanizes Dean's characters, who seem to be playing roles rather than simply existing.
But the young lovers, Richard and Alizon, so silly and inexperienced that even Janet could smile at them and feel mildly superior--they, too, seemed to inhabit a country she had never visited. "Whenever my thoughts are cold and I lay them against Richard's name, They seem to rest On the warm ground where summer sits, As golden as a humblebee." When Janet's thoughts were cold, they stayed so. Nick was bright, but he wasn't warm.
Unsurprisingly for a novel so top-heavy with the effort of establishing and toying with its readers' expectations, Tam Lin overbalances when the time comes for its climax. The actual rescue of Thomas happens too quickly and too easily. In the ballad, Tam Lin tells Janet in great detail what she has to do to save him, and the next verse is essentially 'and that's what Janet did'--an approach that works well in ballads and fairy tales, but falls a little flat when Dean uses it. There's also too little made of Janet's uncertainty over whether to save Thomas, who may be manipulating her in order to save himself, and may have impregnated her for just that purpose (a pregnant woman is needed to break the spell). Having established that for Janet, this is an all or nothing choice--she's not willing to use her pregnancy to save Thomas and then terminate it--Dean spends too little time over Janet's deliberations, perhaps because by this point she's shed her coy pretense and committed to the story directing her characters' lives, which leaves her in a bind--she doesn't want Janet's choice to seem automatic, though clearly she could have made no other one. In the rush to the get to the ending, other characters' stories are left by the wayside. We never find out how things end up for Molly, who had been dating another member of Medeous's court, and Tina simply disappears with with no final statement on her fraught relationship with Janet--neither her selfishness nor her decency are given the chance to win through. The rushed, anticlimactic ending is not a fatal flaw--in a way it heightens our appreciation for the build-up that preceded it--but it does mean that Tam Lin ends not as the intriguing twist on the retold fairy tale trope but as the more conventional romance.
It's hard to know how to sum up Tam Lin--with its unconventional structure, or its conventional plot? The latter is by no means cause for complaint--it would be a curmudgeon indeed who would fault a novel for being a funny, charming, enjoyable romance (in that respect it put me very much in mind of Howl's Moving Castle, and I suspect that had I read Tam Lin ten or even five years ago I would have loved it unreservedly), and Dean has very clearly succeeded at writing the novel she was trying to write. But her intelligent use of genre tropes and her masterful playing on the readers' expectations build up the expectation of a novel that is something more, which never materializes. Tam Lin is a fun and engaging read, but it also feels a little like a missed opportunity.