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Little, Big by John Crowley

Little, Big (edition 2006)

by John Crowley

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2,742None2,134 (4.12)2 / 162
Title:Little, Big
Authors:John Crowley
Info:William Morrow Paperbacks (2006), Paperback, 538 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

Little, Big by John Crowley (Author)

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

"Don't be sad. It's all so much larger than you think."

Smoky Barnable lives in the City and thinks of himself as anonymous. His father is dead and his step-siblings have forgotten him. He has no friends at all until he meets George Mouse who introduces him to his strange family. Smoky falls in love with one of George's cousins, Daily Alice Drinkwater, and he moves upcountry to the Drinkwater estate called Edgewood. At his wedding he meets the Drinkwater family -- a clan of eccentric characters who live in or near a huge pentagram-shaped house that Smoky is still getting lost in decades after he moves in (it's bigger inside than outside). More strangely, the Drinkwaters also have some sort of "religion" that Smoky never quite understands until the end of the story when he realizes that maybe he was not as anonymous as he thought he was. Or maybe he was... And perhaps it's not really the end of the story, but the beginning instead. Or maybe it really is the end...

During the course of the story, we jump backward and forward in time and meet past and future Drinkwaters, such as John Drinkwater who built the house as a model of five different architectural styles; his wife Violet Bramble who could see fairies; her illegitimate son Auberon who took up photography so he could capture the beings he thought he saw in his peripheral vision; Daily Alice's sister Sophie, who spends much of her life asleep; Sophie's illegitimate daughter Lilac who is stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; George Mouse who uses hallucinogenic drugs and doesn't really care if his bed partners happen to be relatives.

Most of the family's stories are told in the past tense, after they've happened. Thus, there's not much action or excitement in Little, Big -- there's little exploration of the house or woods or any interaction with the fairies. It's a slowly meandering family history, somewhat like a soap opera. It's full of "little" intimate details and doesn't open up so that we can see the "big" picture until the very end.

Most of the characters are passive; some (mainly the women) believe they are in a fairy tale and are waiting to see how it ends. Those who don't believe spend their time wondering what they're not being told, or thinking that the rest of the family is crazy. Nobody talks much about the family's relationship with faerie because nobody really knows. Is the family being protected? Are the fairies benevolent or malevolent? This aspect of an elusive, plotting, behind-the-scenes race of magical beings reminded me of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Little, Big has a dreamy, often bleak, fatalistic feel. When bad things happen, such as disappearances, adultery, incest, teenage pregnancy and illegitimate birth, the family says "oh, dear," forgives each other, and considers it all part of the Story, as if nobody is in control of their own actions. Many readers are sure to be enchanted with the wistfulness, but I did not feel as forgiving toward some of the characters as their family members did, and at one point I got so angry and disillusioned with Smoky that I wanted to give up on him. Not only was I mad at the characters who behaved badly, but I was mad at the rest of them for being so passively philosophical about it all.

What kept me reading this long meandering often depressing story was the magnificence of John Crowley's prose, which was beautifully read by the author himself in Blackstone Audio's recent production. Truly, I know few authors who compare and I often found myself sighing with delight at a metaphor or turn of phrase:

"While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers. Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart. Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: "There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer." This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might. Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years.'"

The audio production of Little, Big was superb and my only complaint is that there is no accompanying family tree like there is in the print version of the book. Fortunately, I was able to find this with the "Look Inside" feature at Amazon.

Little, Big: or, The Fairies' Parliament was nominated for all the major awards in 1982 and won the World Fantasy Award. Indeed, it's a remarkable achievement and is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. Little, Big will not appeal to all readers, and I'm not sure I'll read Little, Big again, but I will always remember it with awe. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente, Neil Gaiman, and Patricia McKillip will be totally charmed by John Crowley's writing style and should put Little, Big on the top of their TBR stacks right now. ( )
3 vote Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
Original, Trite.
Epic, Weak.
Boring, Lively.
Rambling, Unspoken.
Significant, Inconsequential.
Simple, Overwrought.
Compact, Frazzled.
Vivid, Tasteless.
Vague, Determined.
Wonderful, Blah.
Little, Big.

A two-word summary of Little, Big is in the title: a book of opposites. My review could be summed up in those words too, but I'll expound a little.

I've been looking forward to reading this novel for nearly a decade. I'd read some wonderful reviews, loved the cover, and eagerly anticipated a well-written epic family saga. I thought this would be the novel that would lighten my heart toward the Fantasy genre, a genre often plagued with plot-heavy tales of yawn. You can argue that it was my hopes for this novel, my unattainable expectations, that kept me from embracing it, but truth is that Little, Big wasn't what it promised to be. The plot was epic, but it was also fragmented into insignificant episodes. The book was original and magical, but within the constraints of what readers have come to expect. The multi-generational family tree was gorgeous and intriguing, but the characters were so paper thin my memory of them blew away with each turn of the page. And character actions and decisions—none of it made sense to me. It felt as though Crowley relied so much on the fantasical elements of the novel—look, a talking animal; over there, is that a fairy; behold, an exploding baby—that he hoped the reader would be distracted from characters and a plot that made sense.

In the end, Little, Big was everything and it was nothing. Some of the best scenes were written so well that it's difficult to say this book failed, but as a whole it did fail to reach me. My favorite moment, surprisingly, was the Christmas scene. Cliché, perhaps, but Santa felt more real to me than the fairies or any of the other characters ever did. I'd love to read a book about that Santa. Only at that moment did I really feel I was beginning to understand the Drinkwater clan; their letters and traditions were fantastic; then it slipped away, and I slogged through another four-hundred pages where the littlest, most inconsequential things were made big, and everything that mattered was made little. ( )
1 vote chrisblocker | Mar 24, 2014 |
A massive, epic book that spans decades and generations of a family that lives next door to fairies and magic. Fascinating and sharply drawn, and yet obtuse enough that I am not quite sure what to glean from it. ( )
  unsquare | Feb 6, 2014 |
Toothsome, decadent surrealist romp of an almost East of Eden nature. Weaves in Shakespearean references and even British mythologies with a deft hand. Worth the time. ( )
  50MinuteMermaid | Nov 14, 2013 |
Oh this is one of those books that are so difficult to review. All books don't suit everyone, like music, or food, and this is one that I think you must either love or hate. It's like reading a Grimm's fairy tale, as narrated by the little prince, it's the reading equivalent of Elsa Beskow's paintings or those wonderful (fake, I know, but still wonderful) Cottingley fairy photos. I think the only book that I've ever read that had the same sensibility was Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Or perhaps some of Neil Gaiman's short pieces (I am a fan of Gaiman's novels, but it's in his short stories he reaches this sense of both gravity and whimsy at the same time. I wonder what he thinks of this book?)

It's big and sprawling, covering decades and generations, and yet it's always intimate. The language is gorgeous. The story is at once mystical and completely easy to follow, there is foreshadowing aplenty if you care to see it, and the whole thing is simply delightful.

To anyone who ever imagined their were fairies at the bottom of their garden, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. ( )
  krazykiwi | Sep 22, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Crowley, JohnAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Canty, TomCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carr, RichardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fitzgerald, John AnsterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gilbert, YvonneCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lippincott, Gary A.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A little later, remembering man's earthly origin, 'dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return,' they liked to fancy themselves bubbles of earth. When alone in the fields, with no one to see them, they would hop, skip and jump, touching the ground as lightly as possible and crying 'We are the bubbles of earth! Bubbles of earth! Bubbles of earth!'
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On a certain day in June, 19--, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061120057, Paperback)

John Crowley's masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:45 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

John Crowley's masterful "Little, Big" is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood--not found on any map--to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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