Rumored Seasons: John Crowley’s Little, Big

April 20, 2010 | 12 3 min read

I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”

coverI bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.

Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.

The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.

Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.

Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big

is an attorney who recently moved to Washington, D.C., from Windhoek, Namibia.  You can reach her at [email protected].


  1. great review — love the hardboiled egg bit. btw, how did it compare to winter’s tale? sounds similar in some ways (magical realism + historical nyc).

  2. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Little/Big. I always see something new in it. The “not knowing” of the Tale and what is Going On draws me in deeper each time I read. I think of it like this: all the big fantasy, magical realist stories, historical, etc., novels and stories focus on the Great Events of which stories are told. But in between those Great Events are the eras and folk of the daily lives that lead up to them; they are still part of the Tale — and absolutely essential, in their way — but the parts that don’t get told. Little/Big is the story of the daily lives and people whose little events are between and build the structure of the big Tales. They may not know what it’s all about, but they know it started long ago and will go on for long after.

  3. What a lovely review! Reading this made me reflect on my own relationship with certain books – the three years it took me to get through the first 100 pages of Lolita, the way I save the last ten pages of a book for at least 24 hours so I can really savor it. I admit, I’ll probably never read this book. It doesn’t sound like something I’d love. I’ll definitely come back to read more reviews, though. Frankly, I’d love to read a second review from Cho, next time she reads the book, to see what it means to her next time around.

  4. Excellent review! I appreciate how you haven’t convinced me I would either like or dislike this book, but have made me want to run to the library right this very moment and open to a random page to see a piece of this story with my own eyes. Coincidentally I have Middlemarch on loan from the library right now – I read two pages and said “I’m not sure this is going to happen.” Perhaps I should renew and give it more of a shot?

  5. This: “whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return” is exactly my experience of this book … the first time I tried to read it, I struggled mightily with the first 100 or so pages, rather like Cho. It came due at the library, and I returned it. A couple years later, having been convinced by reading a few of Crowley’s short stories to give it another shot, I took it out of the library again. Now, I have a pretty good memory – especially for books that I’ve read. But reading it the second time, I adored the first 100 pages (and the rest of it – it’s my favorite book, now.) And I felt entirely certain that those pages had, since I’d last tried to read them, changed. A new story had grown up on them while I wasn’t watching, a story that had enticed me instead of pushing me away. It was kind of eerie, actually, because it felt as if the book itself had the talents and magic that it attributed to many of its characters – the ever-changing Tale, etc.

    Anyway, I’d recommend it. And I’d recommend that anyone who gets bogged in the first bit wait a bit and give it another try, just to see if they also find that there’s an entirely new book waiting in there.

  6. Terrific review. Brings back memories of my childhood of getting lost in books, losing track of time and place. This inspires me to pick up a book and relive those cherished times.

  7. great review…i’ve been trying to decide if i’m going to pick up little, big and i’m think i’m going to pick up Middlemarch instead. thanks for throwing in such an appealing suggestion. also, kudos on setting the stage for the review with the personal details. it was like a little story just to read the review!

  8. What an excellent review. Little, Big is not the sort of book I would typically pick up, which is why I find reviews like this one to be extremely helpful. Little, Big is now in my library queue! I loved the reviewer’s detailed images and how her own tale was woven into her discussion of this book–it added a wonderful layer of richness. I am curious to hear her thoughts once she re-reads it. I am so glad I came across this review!

  9. I would add only one thing to your review; while authors shed blood and tears over the opening line of their novels, Little Big tops them all, by having the best last sentence. Especially for a fairy tale.

  10. Thanks everyone, for lovely comments.

    p, I did think of Winter’s Tale while I was reading it. But Winter’s Tale is weightier, more precise, and directed– made of damask, where Little, Big is made of gauze.

    sdmccain, I agree. I was often surprised at how easily the story slipped in and out of everyday life, and how necessary that was.

    Catherine, thanks for also encouraging the book. I’m afraid I may have sounded too pessimistic about my early trials with it!

    cathy, all I say is: YES.

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