Melissa Dickinson was in her senior year at Miss Porter's School in Connecticut. "In her father's family … the women always attended Miss Porter's --- even her, no matter how far down the family hierarchy she was rated. Her father wanted to be President, and her mother was determined to get him there. Daddy's importance was like a family member, bigger and even more visible than her two older siblings, Richard IV" … an ambitious younger version of his politician father … and her sister, smart, beautiful, lawyer-to-be Merilee. Her younger sibling Billy was the rebel but he had an edge that made him "acceptable" because he was handsome and smart. As the third child among the four, Lissa felt like a misfit. She had failed before she started in this family. And as the "outsider" she had taken an objective view of her family and she didn't particularly like what she was saw. In her position "she was powerless, but she could try to place them in perspective, she could learn and criticize, silently, stealthily. With [her parents] all was stealth."
Marge Piercy, who has written fifteen novels, sixteen books of poetry, a writing manual, a play, a memoir, a collection of essays and has edited an anthology of poetry written by American women opens her latest novel, THE THIRD CHILD, by introducing the reader to the Dickinson clan through the eyes of the story's mixed-up, unhappy, and very lonely heroine. Now that she was eighteen … "she had gradually come to understand things that had been encoded and hidden when she had been young and naïve. Her past with her parents rewrote itself as she gathered knowledge, as the landscape of her childhood mutated out of … blue skies to a landscape with shadows and dark pits and hidden fires burning," under the imperfect reality of her powerful parents. This form of narrative works perfectly; especially when she gives us hints of what we can expect to emerge as the novel unfolds.
"The first big event Melissa remembered after her father had become governor (of Pennsylvania) was an execution. The prisoner's name was Toussaint Parker, and he had killed a policeman." On the night he was to be put to death, the governor's mansion was surrounded with protestors, "[m]ommy called the demonstrators softheads … [she] said it was an excuse for the radicals and the commies and the softheads to make a fuss, but no judge was going to let off a Black troublemaker who killed a cop." Her father, the current senator, was the prosecutor at the time of the trial and it was he who got the conviction.
Piercy is a rebel in ideology and action. She became politicized when she protested the war in Vietnam and much of her writing reflects her commitment to righting wrongs imposed on individuals. Usually, she writes about women who are struggling to escape whatever confines them. In THE THIRD CHILD, the protagonist is very much trying to stave off the knifelike criticisms heaped on her by her mother, while trying desperately to shed the role she was forced into as the family's scapegoat. Her world is often bewildering, and when she finally graduates from high school and gets to Wesleyan she begins to slowly pull herself away from their dark influence.
"Melissa felt as if she abandoned past selves like snake skins of shame along her bumpy route to adulthood … she viewed herself as a project under construction, the road all torn up … [s]he would remake herself … into somebody strong and important." Unfortunately, Blake, the man she meets and falls in love with, has a hidden agenda that will lead her down a path littered with landmines, searing explosions and irreversible decisions. With his encouragement she begins to slowly investigate her father and his political history.
Blake introduces her to a fellow classmate, Phil, the son of the investigative reporter who … "had tried for years to smear her father and never succeeded. Phil was engaged in amassing long lists of contributors to [her father's] campaigns and to organizations supporting him. They were looking for interlocking directorates of corporations and institutions to identify the men --- and it was eighty percent men --- who had given and given again, whose pockets were deep for Dick." Slowly, Melissa begins to uncover secrets her parents have worked diligently to keep buried. Her politicization helps foster the tension between protagonist and antagonists. Piercy does more than create suspense; she has molded her characters in perfect relief to each other. Their actions result in repercussions beyond anything each of them could have predicted, thus pummeling them as every event unfolds.
THE THIRD CHILD is a phenomenal story comprised of a carefully thought out thematic structure that is very complex. The issues addressed are many and range from a coming-of-age story, to an intense love story; from a political treatise, to a fully realized novel; from its chilling undertones it often reads like a mystery; and as we move along with Lissa, we see, too, that it has all of the elements of a true bildungsroman. Marge Piercy gives readers a valiant heroine, a young woman who painfully comes to know herself and her family.
This novel is very provocative and resonates with passions that are both restrained and at the same time allowed to run wild. Many of Piercy's novels often end sadly, but that is no reason not to read them and learn from them, to think about them and grow with them. Enjoy!
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on November 25, 2003
The Third Child