I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Little, Big tells the epic story of Smoky Barnable -- an anonymous young man who meets and falls in love with Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes to live with her in Edgewood, a place not found on any map. In an impossible mansion full of her relatives, who all seem to have ties to another world not far away, Smoky fathers a family and tries to learn what tale he has found himself in -- and how it is to end.
It seems to me that John Crowley had both older fairy stories and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind while he was writing Little, Big. There is a parallel world beside (or maybe simultaneously inhabiting) Edgewood, and, like older versions of fairy stories, its inhabitants seem to be maybe indifferent or maybe hostile to humanity. Smoky spends his life like many of the men who marry into the Drinkwater/Bramble family, wondering what exactly is going on and not really getting a straight answer from the women-folk. It is very reminiscent of old tales where one must be very careful of the fairy folk and avoid angering them. Unfortunately, keeping the details murky for the main characters also keeps the reader in a fog of uncertainly about exactly what was, what is, and what will be. As a reader, I thought that some people knew more than they actually did—Daily Alice and Sophie, for example. All the characters seem strangely passive, just accepting that they are part of The Tale and not striving to understand what’s going on. Even those who start trying to figure things out seem to get strangely stalled or distracted and give up before they get very far. Nobody talks, nobody explains their feelings, nobody gets angry. Only Auberon throws a real fit and that only when it’s impossible to discuss it with the person he is angry with, and he inflicts his anger on himself in self-destructive ways.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Smoky and Daily Alice’s son is named Auberon (i.e. Oberon, King of the Fairies in Shakespeare) and that Auberon’s great love is Sylvie, who confesses to him at one point that she is also known as Titania (Shakespeare’s Queen of the Fairies). By book’s end, the reasons for those names will become abundantly clear.
The writing is beautiful, the descriptions are lush, the family connections are complex—my only complaint is that not much seems to be going on. It’s like a soap opera, where you can tune in weeks after your last episode and still have a pretty firm grip on the plot. Not much will have happened while you are gone (and Auberon and Sylvie actually do work together for a while writing scripts for a soap opera in the City). Maybe I will re-read this someday, trying to find the hook that seems to have caused so many people to adore this novel.