The Third Child: A Novel

The Third Child: A Novel

3.0 2
by Marge Piercy

View All Available Formats & Editions

Under her mother's constant scrutiny and lost in the shadow of her famous senator father, Melissa is the third child in the politically prominent Dickenson family, where ambition comes first and Melissa often comes last. In college, she meets Blake, a man of mixed race and apparently unknown parentage. His adoptive parents are lawyers whose defense of death-row


Under her mother's constant scrutiny and lost in the shadow of her famous senator father, Melissa is the third child in the politically prominent Dickenson family, where ambition comes first and Melissa often comes last. In college, she meets Blake, a man of mixed race and apparently unknown parentage. His adoptive parents are lawyers whose defense of death-row cases in the past brought them head-to-head with Melissa's father when he was the governor of Pennsylvania.

While Melissa and Blake's attraction is immediate and fiery, a dangerous secret lurks beneath their relationship -- one that could destroy them ... and their families.

Provocative and beautifully written, and dealing with themes of love, honesty, identity, and the consequences of ambition, The Third Child is a remarkable page-turner.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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 is rather abrupt and over the top, but it affirms that the most treacherous traps are those set by ignorance and innocence. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Melissa is the third of four children of a glamorous political powerhouse couple, movie-star gorgeous Sen. Dick Dickinson and his perfectly elegant, ruthlessly ambitious wife, Rosemary. Living in the shadow of her preferred siblings-Merilee, the beautiful, smart, older sister; handsome heir apparent Richard IV; and the too-cute "baby," 15-year-old Billy-Melissa is nearly paralyzed with typical teenage insecurities exacerbated by the unforgiving glare of public life. Accepted into Wesleyan, she revels in the anonymity of life as a college freshman, but not for long. Melissa falls in love with Blake, utterly unacceptable to her family with his dark skin, terrifying secret, and adoptive parents, who just happen to be political enemies of Melissa's father. As their affair deepens, Melissa's blind acquiescence to Blake's increasingly sinister intrusion into her family's lives trumpets an impending tragedy that will surprise no one. Piercy, a compulsively readable storyteller, disappoints with her reliance on stereotypical characters and on modern fiction's literary device du jour-plot resolution at gunpoint. For Piercy fans who employ a powerfully willing suspension of disbelief. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/03.]-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The message of the prolific Piercy's latest (Sleeping With Cats: A Memoir, 2002, etc.) seems to be that conservative politicians make bad parents as well as bad leaders. After a stint as governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Dickenson has begun his first term as a senator and has eyes on the White House. If Dick has the requisite charm and charisma, his wife Rosemary, a cross between Nancy Reagan and Lady Macbeth (or Hillary Clinton), has the brains. Neither has much interest in third child Melissa. When younger, she tried to win her parents' attention by excelling, but by the time she begins her freshman year at Wesleyan, she merely wants to get below her mother's critical radar. In a nonfiction-writing class where she composes a revealing essay about feeling neglected by her parents, she meets Blake Ackerman, adopted son of anti-death penalty lawyers from Philadelphia. Melissa's brief volunteer stint as an inner-city tutor while in prep school has raised her racial sensitivity, so she doesn't care that Blake is Jewish and part African-American, both no-no's in the Dickensons' WASPy world. As Melissa and Blake's affair intensifies, Melissa is far too interested in her sexual awakening to pay attention to hints that Blake's interest in her father is an obsession. Blake talks in abstract, idealistic terms, but his real agenda is revenge: for political reasons, his father was wrongly prosecuted-and executed-for a police killing while Dick was governor. Melissa, besotted with Blake and resentful of her parents, unwittingly helps get the goods on Dick's political/financial wheeling-dealing for an investigative reporter. When her parents forbid her to see Blake and threaten to pull her out ofWesleyan, she marries him. Then the real nightmare begins. Blake remains an arresting enigma: Does he really love Melissa or is he using her? The rest of the supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. In all: simplistic politics, convoluted plot, and a heroine too whiny and self-centered to pity.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
659 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Third Child
A Novel

Chapter One

"Your father is an important man." Rosemary placed her small delicate handsfirmly on the ebony surface of her desk, the desk that had followed her through the governor's mansion to the Washington house the Senator had rented at what Rosemary said was an exorbitant price. She had called Melissa and Billy into her office at the back. "You have to learn to behave accordingly. If this gets into the papers, it could damage your father."

Billy was trying to look remorseful, but Melissa worried he was not succeeding. The windows were open onto the narrow yard, where something exotic was in bloom. It was spring vacation and much warmer in D.C. than at Miss Porter's School in Connecticut where Melissa was in her last year. In her father's family, the Dickinsons, the women always attended Miss Porter's -- even her, no matter how far down the family hierarchy she was rated. The garden was her favorite part of this new house in Georgetown on a street called P in the block off Wisconsin where her parents had moved after the election. She and Billy sat out there last night smoking dope under a magnolia whose big flowers were just browning and falling on them. A tree with pink flowers was opening, a tree as feminine as if it wore a prom dress. In the twilight after Billy went in, she had lain under that tree imagining a lover -- not real sex, with its brutal disappointment, but with a soft dissolve, romantic, like perfect kissing. Her grandmother Susie, whom she never saw anymore, would know the name of that tree. When she was little, she had wanted to be like Grandma Susie -- growing tomatoes and peonies, beans and zinnias in the yard in Youngstown. She had started a garden on the grounds of the governor's mansion in Harrisburg, but when Rosemary discovered it, the gardener pulled her plants up and restored it the way it had been. Melissa was supposed to want to be a lawyer or something better, whatever that might be. Her father wanted to be President, and her mother was determined to get him there. Billy had bought the pot on M Street. M and Wisconsin were a different world from the staid block of old houses mostly flush to the sidewalk and always swarming with workers painting, gardening, tuck-pointing the bricks, primping the houses -- on Wisconsin and on M it was a world of the young, alive and noisy, racially mixed and of all classes. This house was Second Empire, which sounded sinister, and only a hundred twenty-five years old;Rosemary had wanted a federal house of red brick two hundred years old, but those were even more expensive.

"It was just pot, Mother," Billy said. His forelock had fallen over his eyes. She fought the impulse to push it back. His hair in the sun beaming through the window was that light red gold called strawberry blond, different from anybody in the family -- not blond like Father and Merilee. Not ordinary light brown hair like Rich Junior and herself. Mother's hair had been blond for years now; it went with her porcelain skin.

"You're just fifteen. Are you trying to get expelled again?" Rosemary shook her head in annoyance.

He gave Melissa one of those Here-we-go-again looks. Actually Billy did not uch care if he got expelled, as he'd said to her when he was waiting to be called on the carpet -- the two of them sprawled on her bed as always talking in utters and whispers. He had friends at prep school, but he made friends easily and one school was like another to him. This was his third. They always let him get away with a lot before they tossed him because he was the Senator's son, and because he was good at every sport he bothered to try.

"I was just going along with the other guys."

Melissa said, "In high school, most guys smoke pot sometimes, Mother. Be glad he's not on Ecstasy or heroin. Let's have some perspective." She always tried to make peace between her mother and her younger brother -- if only Billy could manage to seem truly sorry, but he couldn't fake it successfully. He had never taken their mother's reprimands as intensely as she had. She had been a puppyish fool, wagging her tail, fetching slippers, trying, always trying to be someone Rosemary wanted for a daughter. Now her aim with her mother was to be cool. She was an undercover agent playing the dutiful daughter, but they would see. They had no idea who she really was, her deadly skills and her hidden brilliance as she played the part of a too tall, too busty, hardworking high school senior. But under that drab exterior, she was something else, something that would astonish them. Oh, sure.

Rosemary ignored her. "Everything you do is visible, Billy. Everything any of us does can come back to haunt your father."

Melissa sighed and slumped into a chair. It was a weird curvy chair, which she supposed went with the house, upholstered in nubby blue silk. Her father 's importance. She could not remember when it did not exist. In retrospect, it gilded even the snapshot of him from his Dartmouth days, holding an oar aloft like a captured trophy -- a shot always accompanied by the caption saying that he had gone to the 1968 Olympics with his sculling team. She had learned only two years ago that he had not actually competed -- her aunt Karen told her. Karen cultivated the unusual habit in the Dickinson family of telling the truth, not a trait valued by the rest of the family -- except Billy and her, the two young misfits. Actually Billy was too handsome to be a real misfit ...

The Third Child
A Novel
. Copyright © by Marge Piercy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Marge Piercy is the author of the memoir Sleeping with Cats and fifteen novels, including Three Women and Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as sixteen books of poetry, including Colors Passing Through Us, The Art of Blessing the Day, and Circles on the Water. She lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, Ira Wood, the novelist and publisher of Leapfrog Press.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Third Child 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book, both motivating, and warm. It has great moral, and you cant put it down. I loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of her best. Classic Piercy novel explores class and family conflict, the emotional upheavals of adolescence and first love, and the development of identity in this coming-of-age novel. You feel the characters heading straight for catastrophe, but are powerless to stop it (and powerless to put the book down!) I loved the novel and will be recommending it to my book group.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this story was so contrived and tedious; how many times do we have to listen to the protaganist's endless whining about her birth rank. The minor characters, except for Karen, were so one-dimensional that they inspired no sympathy or interest whatsoever. And the ending? It was the worst. Except for a few decent and brief passages of well written prose, this novel is definitely not worth the time or effort.