When Fairytales Go to Liberal Arts College


Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Ugh, one would think I had the worst taste in books based on what I’ve been posting as my reading material… then again, is it invalidated by the fact that I know that it’s bad after reading it?

I skipped off to the library to find a new foray into the fantasy realm and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin caught my eye. I love fairy tale retellings and couldn’t help picking it up, especially after seeing that it was a reprint with a special introduction for the reprint. Seems glamorous, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.

I knew it was a modern retelling of the Scottish ballad when I walked into it. I knew it was about college students in the 1970s that was originally published in 1991.  (I love Something Wicked This Way Comes and have a deep nostalgia for the pre-tech days of storytelling) . What I didn’t know what that it was an English Lit GRE review guide masquerading as a teen fantasy novel.

As someone who survived the AP exams in both English Language & Composition and English Literature & Composition in high school, then masochistically went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in English Lit, even I was beating my head against the wall for all the excessive literary inside jokes and quotes from Keats (and I adore Keats). There was also an extremely excessive need to list colleges as well — Dartmouth, Grinnell, Harvard, Colgate, University of Pennsylvania, ad nauseum.

It was like the author found a box of her old college essays and decided to write a story about them ten years later. The characters sound more like English PhD students and several professors while lecturing for class, let alone undergraduate students simply hanging out during their freshman year. I have yet to meet anyone who can quote entire Romantic poems verbatim and do it roundrobin with several other folks for fun. Also, what straight twenty-something year old guy in college is willing to give up good sex because the girl he’s dating doesn’t read for leisure?

To add insult to injury, the characters were completely stale and unbelievable (if you couldn’t guess from my previous examples). It was hard to connect to Janet, who is supposed to be experiencing the emotions of moving out of her parents’ home, having her first boyfriend (and sex), and choosing her major. As someone who passed through all of those experiences fairly recently, I was disappointed that all of these situations were handled so poorly. Janet acts more like a weatherworn thirty year old than the naive eighteen year old she’s supposed to be. Instead, Dean takes time to run through a hodgepodge literary survey of Shakespeare performance, the Classics, and the Romantics.

While I understood most of the references (even Dean points out, it’s impossible for English students to have the same set of canon behind them yet continues to assault the reader with at least two per page), it becomes extremely tiring after a while. For example, “The stage was tiny, but Robin had pronounced it large enough for a sword fight, though, he said, you would not wish to try to produce something like Henry V on it, or anything whatsoever by Shaw,” (p. 250) requires the reader to know that Henry V is about war (I got lucky and saw Ethan Hawke while he was performing it at Lincoln Center) and that there are lots of long, extended sword fights throughout. The reader would also have to know that “Shaw” is a reference to “George Bernard Shaw” who enjoyed the swash-buckling defense of a woman’s honor (I think?). Again I have a degree in this and it wears me out, what teenager would know this off the top of her head? I’m all for reading ahead of your level, but this is all gibberish if you don’t know what they’re talking about. Even then it’s gibberish.

Imagine over 450 pages of this. No real action or adventure or real magical mischief. No true insight on the trials of attending college for the first time and growing up that are requisite for the Young Adult genre. There is too much distance from Janet to care about her and she doesn’t really do much of anything worth mentioning and there’s no emotional investment in any of the overly self-absorbed characters. Heck, the romantic portion is done so badly, I think a fourteen year old girl could have written something more genuine.

It isn’t until the last 40 pages that the story comes back and gets dropped on the reader. After over 300 pages of freshman year, the story breezes through to the fall of Janet’s senior year. Little of the story links up, the attempt at social commentary on birth control, abortion and Roe v. Wade that falls absolutely flat by just having her parents simply tell her that they’ll take care of a baby born out of wedlock and she doesn’t have to kill herself. Really? She doesn’t feel worry or shame or guilt (she got knocked up from what was basically a one-night stand with her roommate’s ex/her ex’s roommate). None of it works out to be clever or insightful about anything. It just happens.

I get that it’s supposed to be a college story, but does it have to read like the essay portions of an English anthology for college students?

Well, if nothing else, now you too can pass the English Lit GRE exam after looking up all the references in this book, get a PhD in English Literature, and still not figure out how this fits into the genre of “young adult fantasy.”

(The only reason I gave this book 3 stars instead of 2 stars was because I liked how the story cleverly used The Revenger’s Tragedy and Keats.)

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