Three ways to Sunday

Marge Piercy's new novel captivates with contemporary concerns and classic themes.

Someone once said, or wrote — and it may have been Marge Piercy in one of her other books for that matter — that a triangle is the most stable structure. And so it would follow, perhaps logically, perhaps not, that a sturdy three-legged stool is a good place to sit and spend a weekend immersed in the unstable, or at least rapidly changing, worlds of the three characters who make up Piercy’s newest novel.

Make sure that seat is comfortable as well as sturdy. Three Women will draw you in and make you toss your datebook in the trash, while you forget the laundry, the extra work you’ve brought home from the office, the necessities of eating and sleeping and even — until their protests grow fangs — feeding the cats.

The characters, though, will shop for groceries in preparation for a weekend with a new lover. They will fold laundry into suitcases, reminiscing about childhoods — past and lost. They will postpone their extra work while wondering what to do with the yowling cat whose owner is trapped in a broken body in an inhospitable nursing home.

They will spend your weekend quarreling and consoling and coming to terms with what it means to be old and fragile after an activist life (Beverly); what it means to be torn between family and work, between mother and daughter, between self and others (Suzanne); what it means to be joyful in and of oneself, for perhaps the first time ever (Elena).

On the backs of her characters, Piercy places the burdens and gifts of politics (progressive, of course), current issues (environment, Internet romance), contemporary morals (assisted suicide, adultery) and classic themes (life, death, love, family).

And so you have them. Maiden Elena, mother Suzanne, crone Beverly — three generations of a family marked by tragedy, strengthened by political convictions and soothed by outrageous sensuality.

The plot (in a nutshell, because it has to be): Rebellious 20-something Elena moves in with her driven, yuppie-lawyer mother, Suzanne. They attempt to reconcile after coming to terms with Elena’s history of depression and teenage suicide pacts. When fiercely independent Beverly, Suzanne’s own mother, finds herself immobilized by a stroke, she enlists the help of her daughter and granddaughter in her efforts to die. And thus the family, torn apart by suicide attempted — and, to be fair, years of miscommunication — comes together in the face of suicide achieved.

Other characters round out the lives of these three women, bringing pressures and needs of their own. Suzanne’s blissfully theoretical cyber-sweetie moves to her home turf of Boston and thereby becomes a real factor in her already-crowded life. The husband of Suzanne’s best friend and upstairs neighbor puts the moves on vulnerable Elena, thereby messing up a marriage, a friendship and a smoothly running household. The daughter-at-rabbinical school (the "good" daughter, as opposed to Elena) puts additional pressure on mother Suzanne, for money and for understanding her religious convictions.

But those characters are rightfully minor in comparison with the three women of the title. As in Piercy’s other novels, the characters take hold from the beginning, and weave their strange and ordinary lives together to form a cozy, sometimes prickly, sometimes overwhelming tapestry. Make no mistake: If you have a family (a mother, a daughter, an ailing grandmother) you’ll get wrapped up in this book. Beverly’s post-stroke struggles to feed herself will supplant your own hunger. Suzanne’s efforts to cover medical and tuition bills will push your take-home work aside. Elena’s efforts to find enough barbiturates to assist her grandmother’s final exit will make you forget that you, too, require sleep.

Be warned. You will forget all else. But when you put the book down, closed with the weekend and the final page read, you’ll not forget this book. Not for a long time.

All together

Still reeling from the last pages of Three Women. Must call Marge Piercy. Ask questions.

She answers, explains. No wonder there’s so much going on in this novel. The original name of the book, she says, before the publisher changed it, was Overload.

No kidding. The characters, especially Suzanne, are struggling to make ends meet in so many different ways. It’s easy to relate to her difficulties because they’re the ones we hear about every day. So, apparently, does Piercy.

"A lot of women I know are caught between not being done taking care of their children when their parents also need help, and they’re also making their way in careers, jobs," she says. "They’re pulled in all sorts of directions."

And while she doesn’t say the word "autobiographical," she does explain that her own mother died of a stroke, after she and Piercy had reconciled a long-difficult relationship.

Not all of her characters start out so similar to real people, however — although by the time they’re on the pages of her books, they seem as real as the person reading about them. Piercy goes on to explain that she spends a lot of time building her characters, even to the point of determining the way they walk and their political leanings.

"To me, politics is not a no-no. It’s no different from bringing in ecology or a character’s ethnic background," she says. "To write about people’s political life is to me like writing about people’s sex life … it’s all of one piece."

Piercy’s political views were shaped from her earliest years, when she was growing up in Detroit near Livernois and Tireman. Then, in the 1950s, it was a predominantly black neighborhood, and Piercy saw plenty of racial tension close to home.

"In Detroit, racism and anti-Semitism were very much out in the open," she recalls. "It was very bad, a very violent place … I remember the Detroit race riots — it was terrifying. All these armed white people. They had tanks in the streets."

As a result, she started to question the society that created such violence. "You either ignored it, or had to respond to it."

When she moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, Piercy responded by becoming active in the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements. And then she responded by writing.

Of course. And so the pieces of her life — political, social, personal — come together in more than a dozen novels and even more volumes of poetry. Laughing, Piercy admits that there’s nothing else she’d rather do.

"I’m a writer who likes to write. I find it fun — I find it fascinating. I know you’re supposed to say it was agony, that blood poured out of my nose, but the truth is, I think it’s fun."