Pamela Dean’s retelling of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin is set at a Minnesota college in the 1970s. Janet, whose father teachers at the college, is beginning her studies there when she and her roommates, Tina and Molly, become involved with a tight-knit group of classics majors, Nick, Thomas, and Robin. And various interpersonal dramas ensue, just as it does in college.
Only gradually do elements of the ballad sneak in. At first, it’s just names — Janet, Thomas Lane, the Romance of the Rose. Dean takes her time building to the meat of the ballad. For most of the book, Janet spends her time fretting over her relationship with Nick, while Thomas is dating Tina. There are little teases related to the ballad, but nothing concrete. A female professor has an unusual amount of power over the boys. The girls start using birth control, although Janet’s choice in this area seems obviously misguided. One Halloween passes. And another. …
The book is over 400 pages long, and most of it just involves the characters moving around each other. Because Dean takes so much time getting to the ballad, the relationships, rather than the mythology, become the central point of the story. I think a case could be made that the establishing to details of these relationships goes on too long, but I enjoyed seeing how the characters evolved over their college years. And it makes the realization of what’s going on all the more shattering for Janet.
The ending, when it comes, happens quickly, with Janet understanding her situation and having to make an almost immediate decision. And there are just enough questions left at the end to leave readers with a sense of both relief and unease. I liked that about it, too.