210 of 221 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2000
It took me a few attempts to get rolling with "Little, Big". There is no real action to speak of and not a lot of dialogue - the story just sort of meanders along. Still, my perseverance was well-rewarded...and how! John Crowley's writing has an elegance and beauty that is simply incomparable. I could throw out any number of adjectives - lyrical, sensual, dense, profound, heartbreaking, haunting...in short, an amazing achievement. I have re-read it many times since, and each time I notice new details and depths. As the key concept of the book states, "the further in you go the bigger it gets". It is by no means a light, casual read, and will not appeal to all readers.
The complex story is hard to describe or explain very well (I've tried a number of times to do so). The book opens with a young man named Smokey Barnable making his way on foot from the City to a place called Edgewood, where he is going to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater. From this charming beginning, "Little, Big" goes on to trace the history of the Drinkwater family, whose story is quite literally a Fairy Tale that they only vaguely understand themselves (although they know that they are in it) and of Edgewood, an amazing house "of four floors, seven chimneys, three hundred and sixty-five stairs, (and) fifty-two doors", which is a doorway to the Fairies. "Little, Big" jumps back and forth across five Drinkwater generations as the meaning of the Tale and their place and purpose in it becomes clearer, while Smoky (and later his son Auberon) struggle with their disbelief.
It may not sound like much (and there really is a lot more to it than my extremely brief synopsis), but John Crowley's superb and gorgeous writing just sweeps you along. There are all kinds of odd digressions and even odder characters (including the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Grandfather Trout). Many times I found myself paging back through the book looking for small references that I half-remembered which came up again with greater significance many pages later. The last 50 pages or so (as the Tale reaches its conclusion) are simply heart-wrenching as the Tale (and the novel) reaches its conclusion.
Like other reviewers, I always pick up extra copies to loan to my friends. I just tell them to read it (and hopefully return it, which they seldom do). Don't get discouraged if you have problems getting through "Little, Big" at first. As I mentioned, it took me a few tries to really get rolling with it, but once I was "over the hump" I had no problems getting to the end, and even wondered why I had problems in the first place.
I really don't know what else I can say about this magnificent book. As it has remained my favorite novel for some years now, I cannot recommend "Little, Big" more highly.
100 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2000
You don't have to like science fiction or fantasy to love Little, Big. Anyone who appreciates beautifully crafted writing and books that touch the deepest part of soul should find what their looking for here. John Crowley is one of the most wonderful writers in existence and Little, Big is certainly his best effort to date. His wonderful (and wondrous) books do unfold without a lot of John Grisham action, so if that's your idea of great literature, Little, Big probably wouldn't be for you.
About half of this gorgeous story takes place in New York City, although Crowley never actually calls it that, he just writes, "the City," while the other half takes place at Edgewood (you will find as you read that none of the names in this book are chosen at random, each has a special significance that eventually becomes crystal clear). Edgewood is an unsurpassingly complicated house, built around the turn of the century, by an architect whose wife could see...faeries.
Although we never meet the faeries directly in this novel, their presence is felt through almost all of the book. They are the faeries of A Midsummer Night's Dream, embodying the qualities of mischievousness, whimsy, capriciousness and untrustworthiness. The faeries are also an odd mix of power and vulnerability, but their spirit is in decline. Much of what happens in Little, Big happens because the faeries must rejuvenate the old with the new. Far from being a simple tale of magic or fantasy, this a highly complex one; Little, Big is a mammoth work of more than 600 pages in length.
The story begins with Smoky Barnable, an ordinary man who marries into an extraordinary family (the architect's great-granddaughter). It is Smoky who introduces us to Edgewood and to the subtle, but fantastic presence that his wife's family seems to take for granted. Smoky has a difficult time adjusting and sometimes he feels as though he's the only sane person in an otherwise insane world. The other residents of Edgewood see it differently; they somehow realize that a grand scheme is being played out and that once it is, their lives, as well as the lives of the faeries, will take on a luminous new meaning.
As we near the end of the century, Smoky's son Auberon leaves Edgewood for the City. It is, however, not quite the magical city that Smoky knew. There is a depression, nothing runs quite like it should and a feeling of dread looms over all. Against this background of dread, Auberon meets and falls in love with Sylvie. It is her disappearance that provides the catalyst for the final act of the faeries' scheme.
Despite Little, Big's length, not a word in the book is wasted. Everything is essential, everything is perfect and everything is perfectly placed. There are digressions and detours, but they all have their purpose. And, even if they didn't, they are a joy to read, in and of themselves.
This is a book that unfolds slowly, like new Spring leaves or roses on a perfect summer's day, but slowly is just right for Little, Big. Crowley conveys so many emotions in this book: joy, sorrow, loss, lust but most of all, love. By the time you reach the end, you come to a slow but perfect understanding of why the faeries' rejuvenation is so crucial. This is a beautiful and beautifully-told tale and one that lingers...like a lover's kiss or the end of that perfect summer's day.
108 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2000
Wow. That's all I can really say about this. I'm not sure what more I can say that would make you go out and seek this book down at all costs (the other reviewers here already having done a fine job of kindling that desire hopefully) but every little bit helps and maybe some publisher will read all these and realize that this book deserves to be in print. So . . . deep breath, where to start? I could say that this easily ranks among the best books I've ever read but that tells you nothing. So why do I love it so? The story in essence is a tale (or Tale) of one family's (one large family) association with fairies. But this isn't a typical fantasy novel. For one thing the focus is entirely on the family, the story lunges backwards and forwards in time and the family tree in the beginning is given there for a reason . . . pay attention to it. There's isn't much action but frankly you don't miss it, the action that is there is implied, Crowley shows us the mold and lets our imagination fill the spaces in, the way the best writers do. And ah, the language. If only every fantasy novel could capture the elegance and sheer range of his words. Whether he's being funny or serious or sensual or touching or whatever, there are passages you just want to read outloud. And you will be moved, he'll make you feel joy, despair and everything in between. George Mouse's retelling of his encounter with Sophie's baby has to be one of the most riveting pieces of literature I've ever read. But the overall tone is gentle, images of spring and winter with spring not far ahead (or behind) fill every corner. The fairies' influence is everywhere but they're rarely seen, which is absolutely great. One of the few perfect books in existence, I never wanted it to end and when it did, I felt perfectly satisified. Do whatever you can to find this book, the only bad thing about finishing it is that you know that it'll take a long time before you find a book nearly as excellent. But you can always read it again. One of the forgotten classics of all time, it deserves wider recognition.
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 1997
Because of several mediocre earlier works, author John Crowley was unfortunately typecast as a sci-fi/fantasy fiction writer. Little, Big is however a novel in the truest sense of the word, and established Crowley as one of the better wordsmiths of our time. This is a story to be savored; the delicious phrasings turn in upon themselves with hallucinatory effect, leading the entranced reader into a world just next door ("the further in you go, the bigger it gets") which holds humanity's only promise for salvation from the dreary, deadly eco-mess we've fashioned for ourselves.
The characters in Little, Big are lovable, quirky, and unforgettable, but the book's real power lies in its author's ability to evoke a timeless place in a placeless time through amazing use of language. This book must be read to be seen, and then the reader cannot help but believe. The original Bantam edition's cover art is a keeper-- it captures so well the ephemeral luminosity of the Tale told-- but do not hesitate to devour any copy you can get your hands on.
Crowley himself acknowledges, in the preface to a later edition, that this story may well prove to be his pinnacle as an artist of the written word... and he is comfortable with that notion. It is easy to understand his willingness to rest his literary reputation on this piece of work. An underground, largely-undiscovered classic, I predict that Little, Big will someday attain its rightful place in great literature of the 20th century.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2004
John Crowley's "Little, Big" is a particularly challenging work of fantasy to read and describe because it is not so much a story as it is about storytelling. Although written by an American in 1981, it often looks like a novel that came from an Englishman in 1881, immersed as it is in a Victorian mode, as though Lewis Carroll had lived into the automotive age and decided to incorporate elements from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into an epic of magic and madness.
Shakespeare's play is clearly an inspiration, as the essence of "Little, Big" is founded on fairies, pixies, brownies, sprites, sylphs, dryads--i.e., mythological personifications of nature--although most of the characters are (apparently) human. The genesis of the story (or the Tale, as it is referred to throughout the novel) is the marriage of Smoky Barnable, an average, unassuming young man from the mundane world, to a fantastically beautiful and tall girl named Daily Alice Drinkwater, whose family is somehow (or should I say Somehow) connected to the supernatural. The Drinkwaters live in a large, bizarrely constructed house called Edgewood which, not unlike a smaller version of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, is a gothic manor of labyrinthine and spatially illogical architecture surrounded by a demesne of ornate gardens and wooded landscapes and seems almost to exist in an alternate realm of its own, separated from the real world.
The novel does acknowledge the "real" world, but only obliquely, like a surrealistic painting. Smoky and Daily Alice's son Auberon, perplexed by the secrets of the Drinkwater dynasty and desiring to make a living on his own as a writer, comes to the City (transparently New York) to live with his cousin George Mouse, who actually has a farm. It is here that Auberon will eventually meet his Titania, and here also that a distant relation, an old woman mystic named Ariel Hawksquill, will contend with Russell Eigenblick, a tyrant with an ancient past and a future that poses danger for the Tale.
If none of this sounds like the constitution of a cohesive novel, be aware that "Little, Big" has little interest in the conventions of literary genre and instead seeks to achieve a phantasmagorical effect. To this end, Crowley weaves an intricate tapestry of concepts from history, mythology, and his own imagination, employing tarot cards, talking animals, the Holy Roman Empire, a contraption called the Cosmo-Opticon, an orrery (keep a dictionary handy) powered by a perpetual-motion machine, while Auberon's three sisters spin, measure, and cut thread like the Fates. This is heavy, complex, philosophical material to be read with patience and an open mind, not for the common fantasy reader who is hoping for an easy, banal plot.
Crowley's rich, colorful prose pays lavish attention to detail, contrasting the tranquil idyll of Edgewood with the faceless modernity of the City, but even more notably it maintains the narrative in a certain nebulous state, as though the characters were passing in and out of each other's dreams. Everywhere is the thrill that something to be revealed is barely out of reach, and little by little the pieces come together like a finely cut jigsaw puzzle. This book is a marvel; a massively enjoyable journey into the myriad possibilities of post-Victorian fantasy.
70 of 80 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2006
This book has more potential than it realizes, leaving the reader a shell of what could have been potentially outstanding. There exists a dreamy enchantment which fills the pages, likening it to Alice in Wonderland isn't totally erroneous. Yet the book never ties itself together, something required in a dreamy book in order to bring it home. I don't think a book needs to bring anything home, per se. But when you walk down a road where reality and light fantasy fuse together, it begs to be resolved into some sort of discernable entity.
The book never does that, an eventuality foreshadowed by a decided lack of cohesiveness as the story draws to an end. More to the point, the book devolved from an interesting read to a chore, going from hazy walk through an intriguing literary landscape to droning plow through untamed literary wilderness. Again, I don't mind so much when this is the case. But in the end, I felt these loose ends missed the boat for me.
This is a story about Smoky Barnable, a man who marries into a strange yet interesting family that exists in the aforementioned reality haze. Through it all, he never fully buys into it, never adopts this dream as his own. Despite the coming together of "the story" for them, Smoky never truly experiences it, even though he is an integral part of the story. I'm being vague here, because the book is vague. The haze, the coming together, the dream - these are things which lend themselves to the highly subjective perspective of the reader. This isn't so much a straight fiction book and it isn't so much a fantasy book. It's in between, melding parts of both with neither taking the lead, without blending them into a cohesive story. The best way to put it is to assert the book is passive.
Some of this work is probably lost on me, to be honest. I'm sure people who loved this book will agree with that. Yet, if you read the reviews, many people admit the book doesn't have much of a plot. For that matter, there isn't much character development, if any. One reviewer who loved it said the book is about as indescribable as a book can be. Someone classified the book as new age rubbish, which I think is a bit harsh. Still, claims that this book belong in the same breath as 100 Years of Solitude and Ada are delusional.
A lot of writers seem to like this book, perhaps because book's words are so easy to read. Some authors, no matter what the subject matter, have a way with words. Crowley has a way with words, and his words often come out as magical and ethereal. Thus, from that perspective I have to concur that it's a good read. Perhaps this might be an author's author, as the expression goes, who can be appreciated more by those who have to face the onslaught of media scrutiny, where words themselves paint a rich enough tapestry to endear one to the pages. But for me, that's not enough. The story needs to go somewhere, plot needs movement, characters need development. None of that happens in this book.
It appears there is a large crowd which likes the dreamy sequence books, a reading subculture that likes fantasy but wants to do away with the dragon and the sorcerer and so on. It's an understandable desire as a reader, since fantasy now has gone in a direction which is so pigeon-holed that many readers cringe at the word. I don't know if these fantasy-dream books are for me. This book suggests not. But I can see the appeal, and at times I found this to be wavering on being really good. In the end, it was too long and never brought home what I was expecting, which might suggest the problem in the first place, that I had expectations. As another reviewer said, the intriguing hints never evolve into anything but murky illusions. I still enjoyed it, but I was happy when it was over.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2001
I recently re-read 'Little, Big' and was reminded what a superb book this is.
Crowley mixes American ruralism, European fairy tales and the pioneering fantasy of William Morris into a beautiful blend that somehow transcends its elements, and produces a book that you cannot help but love. 'Little, Big' is especially notable for walking the difficult faerie tightrope that falling from one side would land you in tweeness and on the other in cynicism, with ease. Characters like George Mouse and Daily Alice could have been so sugary and trite in a less skillful writer's hands. The gradual gathering darkness of the story as the book evolves could have been simple and unsubtle modern horror without Crowley's magic.
Finally, 'Little, Big' has a setting at the centre of it that is as memorable as the greatest places in literature. A house literally in the middle-of-nowhere, not entirely separate from the outside world and its developments but somehow immune from the worst, whose jumbled architecture and grounds get larger as you go in: Edgewater is a fascinating and timeless creation.
For once, a masterpiece that really deserves the accolade.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2001
One of those books you can read again and again, finding new things with each reading. An epic sort of work, that explores several generations of a family whose lives are closely entwined with the mythic world of faerie. However, it does not move sequentially through these generations, but jumps about and flashes back giving you the pieces of a puzzle you must put together. The story has a circular and cyclical quality that gives it a "never ending" appeal. The characters are genuine and likable, and the setting is both contemporary and timeless in quality.
We begin the story with Smoky Barnable, an ordinary sort of man, he has left the City and given up his job editing the Telephone book. He is walking down a country lane on the way to be married. Walking there, by the way, was one of the stipulations of the wedding. His bride-to-be is Daily Alice, whose family lives at Edgewood, a house that sits on "the edge" of the world and was built by Alice's grandfather. Alice's Aunt Cloud is sitting on the front porch following Smoky's progress with her tarot cards, while Alice's father is in his study writing children's stories about the mouse-famliy that lives in the garden wall. Smoky met Alice through Frank Mouse, Smoky's co-worker and Alice's cousin. Frank, who's illegitimate child with Alice's sister Sophie was stollen by faeries and replaced with a changeling, is commonly known as the City Mouse.
OK, I think you get the idea...
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2003
I wish I could give this 4.5 stars, because it's not really a 4 star, but I can't really give it a 5 because some readers "might" get bogged down in the earlier parts and give up reading.... it would be a shame to do so, but there you have it.
This is a slow read-- but I don't mean that in a negative way. It's more like savoring something that tastes really good-- you don't want to gobble it all down right away, and it's really so rich that if you did consume it too fast, you'd regret it afterwards. The book is not at all a fast-paced action book. Hollywood would certainly never make a movie out of it, for example. But you grow to love the characters, and there is a long time for you to come to know them well.
The tone is mythic-- at times it feels like you're reading a book written in the 1900's, but it is also truly modern. Once you get to the end and find out the circular nature of the story, and the way it blends its "ordinary people" characters into fantasy and faerie, you'll be amazed at the power of a "slow" novel to really dig deeply into your memory.
There is a tendency for some folks to think "fantasy" is only the stuff read by teens & is not "literary." The fantasy epic, however, goes as far back as Spencer's Faerie Queen-- which this novel, in some ways, owes a debt to. It's truly worthy of being classed in the "canon" of great literature-- but I don't think it will be-- like one of its main characters, the novel is strangely anonymous among readers who OUGHT to know about it. Fans of fantasy as a genre ought to read this book, but then, so should classics fans and literary novel fans. Read this book, and see the way myth and history blend together.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2001
Little, Big is not easy reading, and the writing isn't always consistent. That said, it is a moving, strange, and melancholy work that rightfully deserves a place as a classic in fantasy literature. The first sections, which detail the history of the Drinkwater family, are the most beautiful and intriguing pieces of fiction I have ever read. Crowley manages to write about fantastic things-- a house with multiple fronts, fish that talk, fairies in the woods-- and make their reality as unquestionable as a tree, a book, or a car. I can't claim to understand the book entirely, and there are times when it spins out of control, particularly towards the end, when Crowley writes about the strange resurrection and downfall of a Holy Roman Emperor, who takes over a 20th century city that bears more than a passing resemblance to New York. All the same, Little Big is a brave, shimmering thing, and I wish more people would read it. It is one of the few books I have read that succeeds in evoking a new, yet weirdly familiar world, for its readers.