The Third Child

Piercy’s “Sixteenth riveting novel…A remarkable and provocative page-turner”

“A biting, contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet and an acidic commentary on Washington political culture.”
-Publishers Weekly

In the prominent political family of the Dickinsons, ambition comes first, and Melissa, the third child, has always felt she came last. Going away to college at Wesleyan offers a chance at love and a life free from her brilliant mother’s constant scrutiny.


Blake, a child of mixed race and apparently unknown parentage, has been reared by lawyers whose defense of death row cases has brought them toe-to-toe with Melissa’s father, the former governor of Pennsylvania, who is now a U.S. senator.

When Melissa meets Blake at college, their passion is immediate. Yet Blake is keeping a dangerous secret from Melissa, one that could destroy them–and their families. Dealing with themes of love, honesty, identity, and the consequences of ambition, this thoughtful, beautifully written story is a remarkable and provocative page-turner.

From American Library Association Booklist, 9/1/03,
Featured in the UPFRONT: ADVANCE REVIEWS section:

“Piercy is adept at fashioning provocatively topical plots and vivid characters in order to explore the psychological complexities of families, relationships between men and women, and various forms of social injustice. In her sixteenth riveting novel, Melissa Dickinson is the unloved third child in a prominent political family, and the bane of her beautiful WASPy mother, a consummate politician’s wife, who is militarily well organized and ruthlessly ambitious for her handsome, stain-resistant husband, formerly a hard-hearted governor of Pennsylvania, currently a senator with an eye on the White House. Melissa is nothing like her lovely older sister, politico-clone older brother, or easygoing younger brother. Introspective, embarrassingly voluptuous, and profoundly enraged by her mother’s chilling devotion to creating the perfect family image, she is infinitely relieved to go away to college, where, inevitably, she falls in love with a guy who embodies everything her parents despise. Seemingly African American, Blake is the secretive and manipulative adopted son of two famous Jewish liberal lawyers. But there is nothing predictable about Piercy’s extraordinarily magnetizing characters or this novel’s bold and galvanizing story, which raises tough questions about one’s sense of self and the many faces of compassion, loyalty, and power.” –Donna Seaman

For YA and Middle Readers: A young woman’s struggles with family, insecurity, and sexuality will have strong teen appeal.

From Publishers Weekly, 11/10/03:

“A privileged, lonely 19-year-old takes refuge in a doomed love affair in this 16th novel by Piercy (Three Women, etc.), a biting, contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet and an acidic commentary on Washington political culture. Melissa Dickinson is the neglected, needy third child of Republican senator Dick Dickinson and his cold, scheming wife, Rosemary. In her first year at Wesleyan, she meets Blake Ackerman, a classmate who is both dark-skinned and Jewish, qualities sure to distress her parents. Melissa is ripe for the attention Blake lavishes on her after he discovers that she is Dick Dickinson’s daughter. He tells Melissa he’s the adopted son of Si and Nadine Ackerman, liberal criminal lawyers whose defense of death row cases has been a thorn in Dickinson’s side for years, but doesn’t immediately inform her that he’s also the mixed-race son of Toussaint Parker, a convicted “cop-killer” whose execution Dickinson, a former Pennsylvania governor, failed to stay. They fall into an intensely symbiotic relationship fueled by sexual compatibility (“Sometimes she felt as if they were rooting, digging through each other’s bodies trying to sink deeper and deeper within”) as well as by Melissa’s resentment of her emotionally inaccessible family (“she had wanted to punish them for their long disregard of her”) and Blake’s desire for vengeance, which includes hacking into Melissa’s parents’ computer to find evidence that might destroy “King Richard’s” career, but ends up destroying much more. Piercy’s explosive resolution affirms that the most treacherous traps are those set by ignorance and innocence.”

The Interview: Publishers Weekly Talks with Marge Piercy
The Politics of Star-Crossed Lovers

PW: What inspired you to write about the star-crossed lovers in your 16th novel, The Third Child?
Marge Piercy: I was eating in Georgetown, and there was a mother and daughter—the mother was very elegant—and she was berating her daughter for the way she was dressed in a deadly tone, and that stuck in my mind. Also, someone I know who comes from a well-to-do family and has never felt good enough, and then [there’s] Romeo and Juliet. I always like playing with literary precedents.
PW: Your” Juliet” is the emotionally neglected Melissa Dickinson, daughter of Dick Dickinson, a prominent politician, who falls in love with Blake Ackerman, the adopted, mixed-race son of one of Dickinson’s adversaries. Why did you choose Melissa as the single narrator?
MP: Because if you told it from the standpoint of Blake, he knows who he is, so things don’t gradually unfold. If you’re in the view-point character, you can’t legitimately withhold the information. In most of my novels I use multiple viewpoints. [But in this book,] I preferred to be in Melissa’s viewpoint, a little behind her.
PW: Was it difficult getting into the mindset of a 19-year-old?
MP: It took a little while. I’m on college campuses a lot, giving readings and workshops. I went to Wesleyan, spent some time there, just talking to students, to get a notion as to how things are now. The dating scene is entirely different. It seems like there’s very little in-between. You’re either with somebody or it’s meaningless.
PW: What influenced the chilling characterizations of Melissa’s power-obsessed mother, Rosemary, and Alison, her devoted assistant?
MP: One of the things that interests me as a feminist is how some women totally subsume themselves. They don’t give up power. They don’t give up getting their way. Rosemary’s basically a very traditional woman with modern needs. [She and Alison] are women who only act through other people, but they act in their own way with tremendous power through the other people they serve.
PW: How long did it take to write this book?
MP: Two years. I’ve used Philadelphia in previous novels and will probably use it again. Washington, who knows? The novel I’m writing at present is set in the 19th century shortly after the Civil War and most of it occurs in New York City. I never do sequels. When I finish a book; I go on to something else.
PW: Does your poetry ever feed your novels’ development?
MP: They don’t really feed each other. Mostly the poetry comes out of my life or the people around me in a very direct way. Writing novels is a way of entering very different characters from yourself and looking at the world through their eyes.
PW: How do politics affect the construction of your novels?
MP: All fiction has a political dimension because fiction embodies attitudes that the writer has about what’s male and what’s female and what ought to be; what is permissible to do with other people; who are the good people; who are the bad people; who deserves to win and lose; what does living mean; what does losing mean; who is it permissible to make fun of? These are all attitudes that are built into every piece of fiction. All fiction contains political ideas.
PW: Are political issues as important to you as they were when you first began writing?
MP: Yes, because you see society being torn apart. You see people’s lives being undermined. What’s going on upsets me a great deal.

The Third Child
A Novel by Marge Piercy
Published by William Morrow, An Imprint of Harper Collins
ISBN: 0-06-621116-6
352 pp. / $24.95 ($38.95 Canada)
Publication: December, 2003