So I'm having trouble here with the rating. This is a 3 star book in the most un-obvious way; that is that there are parts of this novel that I would rate as 5 star and others that I would give a 1 star. And so, everything must average out.
First, for my complaints. I felt like Barry was just trying too hard to encompass EVERYTHING. This "on Canaan's side" reference to the promised land and the great hope and dream of America for the immigrant is a reasonable scope. However, Barry also tries to cover and highlight all the timeline points of American history 1920-1990. It really was just too much. It was too much that Lilly knew Dr. King; it was too much that Lilly's son was a tragic Vietnam war vet and her grandson was in Desert Storm; it was too much that her second (of sorts) husband was really a black man trying to pass as white. It was all just too much. Barry wanted to give his novel great scope and I'm sure he was proud of himself for highlighting all the flaws in this Canaan of ours (speaking as an American), but it was just all too contrived. It felt a bit like Forrest Gump (a great American survey story).
I was also disappointed at times at how overblown the language could be. Barry was great at concisely describing human relatinoships (see more below), but his descriptive passages were just masterbatory fluff (at times). For example: "Beyond the amusement park the Cuyahoga River, that sometimes had seemed to be like a broker creature slinking away, vast and stinking, abruptly and magically regained her ancient beauty, the filth and darkness of the water turned ever so slightly by the hand of hte world, so that its filthiness had only been a humorous coat to hide its gemlike brilliance, its fantastical yellows, its gleaming grees, its browns as lovely as an Irish bogland."
Personally (and I realize that neither of these issues may bother other readers). I hated that Mr. Nolen was the assassian. It was just too convenient and too "wrapped up". I also was annoyed at Lily's religiousity throughout. I get that (especially hailing from war torn Ireland) her Catholicism was relevant, but she admits to rarely attending church and yet she attributed so many things to "God's will" (and certainly the title has religious reference as well).
On the positive side, though, Barry has a great grasp of human nature and relationships. I absolutely loved several of his observational quotes:
"I am sure he knows when he is not wanted. But the difficulty with him will always be it is hard not to be glad to see him." I think we all know this feeling, there are people in our lives that we always want to see and are happy to be around, but occasionally it is just not convenient and we wish they had not appeared.
"There's not point talking about love, what's sure as sure is no human person knows what that is." I defined love as faith at one point (being a non-religious person myself); it is the feeling that something is right and true without any sense or logic behind it.
"We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation agains that."
"How is it that we do not feel less lonely for the present of our children?"
"Work is the oil of the soul"
"for me everything was done gratis, so lightly and almost invisibly that I never thought about it. I liked him, but did I see him? Was he not almost not there, a lot of the time, even when he was there?" I love this description of the way that the we take for granted (and in part take advantage of) those who are willing to do for us because they like us. We can accept these favors almost without noticing that there is anyone actually doing them.
"I revered him, I loved him, in that simpler way of friendship, where everything more or less is known, accepted, and for the great part rejoiced in. A person who has attributes that excite in you a continuous desire to see them, who, on coming in through your front door, seems to create in you a strange satisfaction, may be deemed a friend, and the devil take the reason." I love the description of this indescribable reaction to some people. There are those out there for whom we feel strong, illogical, and undefinable affection.
"Truth is everything. We do not know it, we do not know how to get it, we do not have it in our possession, God will slap it on us like a police warrant as we arrive breathless at the gates, it is entirely byond us, truth, bloody truth, but it is everything."
Overall it is definitely worth reading. It is short and there are very poignant moments. The story is interesting and the wit is strong, but it just tried to do too much.