So Big is about beauty: the people who see beauty and the people who don’t; the things we sacrifice for beauty and what we ultimately sacrifice if we pursue worldly “success” instead of seeking the beauty in life.
Selina suddenly finds herself friendless and penniless at 19 when her father dies and leaves her almost nothing, having lost everything to gambling debts. She leaves Chicago, the city she knows, to teach in a one-room school in the farm country to the southwest. The first half of the book follows Selina, who is able to find beauty in even the most dire of circumstances.
The second half of the book follows her son, Dirk, or So Big as she calls him. He rises above the poverty he was born into and enters a world filled with “beauty”. He climbs to the top of the social ladder in 1920’s Chicago, where he is surrounded by wealth and luxury. But he’s unable to see any real beauty. And ultimately that is his undoing.
The book deals with themes of beauty in nature and in art, of dashed expectations and expectations met too well, of falling in love and falling out of love. At some points it might feel slow to the modern reader, but the ending is worth getting to.