Little, Big is a lot of things, some of which are contradictory: dreamlike fantasy, family saga, metaphor for the twentieth century, quirky, epic, mysterious, complicated, simple, and on and on. The title is quite fitting: on one level it’s an intimate story of a family growing and changing over time; on another level it is an epic story of changes in American life told through the metaphor of a faeirie war. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeously written. Crowley’s prose and his metaphors are rich, evocative, and enthralling.
The plot involves a young man from The City (clearly New York, though never named) named Smoky Barnable walking to meet his fiancée, Daily Alice Drinkwater at a strange rural home in Edgewood. Of course, this home is at the “edge” of a mystical wood, populated by different breeds of faerie and old, fading magic. For the rest of the novel, we follow Smoky and Alice through their lives and flash back to Alice’s eccentric family. We learn about her strangely spiritual architect great-grandfather who sought to replicate the geography of a magical multiverse in the construction of his own home, and her grandfather who cursed himself to be loved by all young women. We also spend a great deal of time with her son, Auberon, who also works to understand the strange world at Edgewood and find his own Destiny, and love, in The City, now changed much for the worse (New York in the 1980s was not a pleasant place). In the background we have The Tale, the epic confrontation between old magic and the new modern world that plays out through the lives of the Drinkwater-Barnable family.
I’d heard a lot about how great this novel was…and perhaps it was a bit overhyped to me, as it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. On the one hand, Crowley's merging of the intimate and the epic is brilliantly accomplished – on the other, it left me a bit disconnected from the characters. Their overshadowing Destinies took away from their reality and relatability. For instance, when Smoky is led somewhat astray from Alice several years after their marriage, it seemed more the workings of magic than a true reflection of Smoky’s feelings and being.
But, saying that I didn’t like the novel as much as I expected too is not too harsh a review – considering I had been told that this was one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century by several sources. I still enjoyed the novel very much, and I had to admire Crowley’s amazing craft, from the gorgeous and illuminating metaphors that litter almost every page and the folksy but precise prose to the bigger truths that Crowley sought to uncover. I’d certainly recommend this book, especially to fans of urban fantasy (eg Neil Gaiman), as this is one of the founding texts.