This rather engaging book retells the ballad of Tam Lin, setting it in a small liberal arts college during the seventies. It’s a charming idea, and it partially works. The depiction of college life is vivid and affectionate: Dean obviously loves both college and English literature, and that makes the book very enjoyable. The heroine, Janet, is well-drawn and sympathetic; her friends are all quirky in a believable sort of way. And even though almost nothing beyond the normal travails of college life happens in the first few hundred pages, Dean still manages to make it interesting and fun. This is quite a feat.
Unfortunately, the book is not so successful as fantasy, and especially as an adaptation of Tam Lin. For the majority of the book there is nothing supernatural beyond a few ghost stories and Odd Happenings; the fantasy elements arrive all in a rush at the end of the book. The result is that the climax (though quite well-written itself) feels oddly rushed. This might have been excusable if Dean had utilized the space to explore the relationship between Thomas and Janet; however, she spends very little time on it. At the end of the novel we’re supposed to believe that they’ve found true love, but I found it difficult because they’d spent so little time together–and because they’d been sleeping with other people for the past three years.
In fact, their previous entanglements make a much more serious dramatic problem. When talking about her involvement with Thomas, Janet says, “Them that dance must pay the fiddler.” Yet she spends three years sleeping with her boyfriend Nick with absolutely no consequences. How is one instance of casual sex with Thomas is supposed to have huge, life-changing repercussions? Furthermore, Nick is even more involved with the Fairies than Thomas, which doesn’t work dramatically. You don’t shack up with a member of the Fairy court and then just walk away from him. (See: every ballad ever.)
Morally, the book is quite problematic. Janet and her friends are all sleeping with their boyfriends and on the Pill; both author and characters seem to consider this perfectly normal and healthy. Even more problematic is when Janet gets pregnant and has to decide if she’ll keep the baby or have an abortion. (The issue is complicated by the fact that she can only break the spell on Thomas if she’s pregnant.) The characters pretty much all have the typical waffly modern position: they confidently assert that abortion is a woman’s right, and then say that they don’t feel quite right about it. Janet herself says, “I don’t know what I think about abortion; but I can’t take advantage of being pregnant and then just go merrily off and not be pregnant anymore.”
Overall, Tam Lin is a pleasant but flawed book. It’s fairly enjoyable and if you’re an adult it probably won’t destroy your faith, but it’s not really more than that.