Marge Piercy’s newest novel, The Third Child, uses the classic Romeo-and-Juliet theme of star-crossed children from enemy families who meet and fall in love. Melissa Dickinson is the third child of four, overlooked by her beautiful mother and her Senator father who has aspirations to the White House. She is a young woman tired of the prescribed life she has led and is looking for a way out of the artificially perfect family her mother has created.
Melissa’s love, Blake Ackerman, is the adopted son of Si & Nadine Ackerman, a pair of liberal Philadelphia lawyers who defended Blake’s natural father – Toussaint Parker – in a death penalty case. Melissa’s father, Dick Dickinson, was one of the prosecutors in the early stages of Parker’s case, and is governor of Pennsylvania at the time Parker is executed.
Melissa grows up being told how important her father is and how everything she does, every person she associates with, reflects on her father. Hers is a life in which the truth is slippery, honesty frowned upon, and inconvenient family members sent into exile to the Mountain View Rehabilitation Center -- a polite name for what is a sanitarium.
Piercy creates believable characters at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Melissa is, like all college students, forming opinions of her own away from the constraints of her family, but as she has never been encouraged to think for herself, is naïve in her judgments. Blake is a liberal crusader, both manipulative and charismatic, who confuses Melissa and the reader; it is unclear at times just how deliberate his actions are, or how much he loves Melissa and how much he is using her. The Ackermans, his adopted parents, are Jewish hippies fighting for just causes, while Melissa’s parents are narrow-minded WASPS blind to everything but power and greed.
Once at college, Melissa finally feels her real life has begun, but this is when her troubles truly begin. In one of her classes she meets Blake, who is everything her parents will hate, and thus all the more attractive: the child of a white mother and a black father with a mysterious personality and a mysterious past. Melissa is so captivated by him that she ignores many of the warning signs that something is amiss in this relationship: unexplained absences, silences about much of his life, and an obsessive need for Blake to dig up all the dirt he can on Melissa’s father.
As the couple become more and more involved, it becomes clear that both young people are searching for a place to belong and a sense of purpose they haven’t otherwise found in their lives. The troubling path they follow together is both intentional and accidental, and, though it reflects the classic Romeo and Juliet plot, takes it a few steps further. Melissa is so keen to defy her parent’s views of who she should be she that she follows Blake with near-blind devotion and is swept along on the tide of their actions. Piercy’s skillful digging into the realm of politics and the passion of these two young people paints a powerful portrait of duplicity and innocence, morality and justice, and keeps one hoping that innocence and justice will triumph in the end.
Marge Piercy is a master storyteller who offers a disturbing look into an ambitious political family, making one wonder how political families like the Clintons, the Kennedys and the Bushes interact at home, and if there is ever a time when politics are not being plotted out and friends and enemies cultivated or destroyed. This is a compelling story that will keep you thinking for days after you’ve finished.