Little, Big by John Crowley was one of those periphery books that I circled around for most of my adult life. It’s the kind of book I heard about through all the right channels, suggested by other readers because I like this or that or the other thing. It’s the kind of book you see out of the corner of your eye at the library, haunting you. The cover sticks in your mind, and you can recognize it from a lineup of other covers, but you’ve never actually sat down and read it.
It’s just always been there, tempting and waiting. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, I could give so many excuses, but that would be just it, excuses. And it wasn’t even like I tried to read it, and it didn’t catch with me, and I set it aside for another time. I just never even opened up the book itself.
Such a shame that was, to imagine I could’ve experienced this book so much sooner and had the chance to re-read it and have it grow with me through the years. This is definitely the kind of book that grows with you, that changes in some imperceptible way with each read, mirroring your own changes as life rushes by around you. I picture reading this as maybe a teen and being blown away by the writing and the story, maybe even reading it around the same time I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Brother’s Karamazov or On the Road or King of Elfland’s Daughter. All these books that feel like antecedents to this one, and all books I loved in my highschool years.
Or maybe, later on, reading it in my twenties right after my own marriage, reflecting the different love stories and marriages that coalesce and build through the novel and seeing myself reflected in those pages or characters. And then in this fictional version of myself, I would re-read it when my daughter is born, and then my son. I would wait until they fell asleep and join the Drinkwater family in Edgewood, seeing their own massive familial story play out in my mind’s eye, and coming to it with so many new experiences. I could understand things in ways I hadn’t before, and saw connections in my own life and memories I hadn’t before.
Like that time, in the woods, when we laid down with the trees and it felt like something watched from the leaves, unseen but still there. Maybe I would pull a Princess Bride, and read a sanitized version of this story to my kids before bedtime, skipping over the sex scenes they would be too young to appreciate (and if they did understand, would be super awkward having their dad read it to them).
Maybe I would return to it again, years later, when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, going through a separation and divorce, all around the same time my grandfather died. Would I see the connections between him and grandfather trout that I see now? I still dream of my grandfather, I see him there in my sleep living in eclectic houses similar to that in Edgewood. Sometimes I think these dreams I’m speaking to the dead, and other times I think of them just as dreams and nothing more. But there is a connection there, isn’t there?
Would I have seen it then, before he died? Or was his death some kind of catalyst in making that connection between their characters? I don’t know. I also think about that time I was living in Maryland, a little after his death and far away from my kids and family. I was living in an apartment whose backyard was the state forest that connected to DC. And yet the front yard went straight out to the city of Columbia, with tons of cars driving buy and strip malls and people everywhere.
It was a strange dichotomy of worlds, and I remember walking through the state park and seeing a fox, and the fox looked at me and then ran off. What would I have thought, then, if I had re-read that book those lost and lonely nights so far away from family and home? Would I have seen green faces in the trees, thought of the fox as a friend or a trickster laying traps?
Little, Big has that effect on you, no doubt. I wish in my heart it would have had that effect sooner on me, and I could’ve carried that dizzying unreal feeling throughout my entire life. But I did not. I could tell you how the writing is pure poetic bliss. I would tell you how the scenes in the real world leading up to Edgewood made me think of Melville’s writing, or Dickens, and that I pictured them in sepia tone. I could tell you about how the scenes in Edgewood spring to life in vibrant color in my mind, and made me think of Miyazaki’s lush locations in his movies (like the bath in Howl’s Moving Castle, or Howl’s bedroom, or Ponyo’s father’s home, or the poison forest in Nausicaa, etc…). I could tell you how the overall story of the novel is about stories, is about being confined to destiny, is about the beauty of being in a tale told and unfolding before your very eyes. I could mention how it moves like One Hundred Years of Solitude moves…
But that’s all surface detail. What you need to know is that this book changes you, and this book changes with you, and that I am all the more sad that I had not come to this book at an earlier age, and had it grow and expand with me through the years. I guess, since this is a review you’re probably wondering if you should read the book and if it’s worth your time, and I would say read it, and do it sooner rather than later.
You’ll thank me if you do.