CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 38. . . . June 1, 2018
The Third Act takes place in the modern Ashford, Ohio, and 1937 Nanjing, China, with two sets of characters: two university students – Hill Chao and Lily Chan -- and American playwright Neil Peterson in Nanjing, and three Chinese international students – Theresa, Tone, and Pike -- studying at Eastern University in Ohio. Tone is a brilliant physics student who has just won a prestigious fellowship to MIT. Theresa is Tone’s actress girlfriend who is beginning a production of a The Third Act, a play based on Peterson’s lost Chinese play. Pike, Tone and Theresa’s roommate, is a rich kid who is flunking out of university because he does not enjoy studying physics, a subject his father insisted he major in. The 1937 characters are trying to put on a play during the Nanjing massacre and must try to appease the Japanese occupiers to allow the production to go one. The modern characters all get involved in the production of the play based on the 1937 characters, forcing themselves along the way to learn more about themselves and to make life-changing decisions.
Readers of The Third Act are taken between modern Ohio and 1937 Nanjing. The connection between the two time periods is Neil Peterson whose work the modern playwright, Allen, draws upon. Readers learn more about the Nanjing massacre, both through the modern staging of a play and the flashbacks to 1937. Throughout the novel, there is a mystery the modern characters try to solve: why did Peterson never finish the Chinese play? This plotline is suspenseful and encourages readers to continue reading until they find out the answer.
I recommend The Third Act to students who enjoy both historical fiction and mystery novels. The novel has a strong, well-developed female character in Theresa. Further, the characters of Tone and Pike, who, at the beginning of the novel seem to be stereotypical Chinese students, soon outgrow that stereotype.
Sarah Wethered has been a teacher-librarian at New Westminster Secondary School for 18 years, and she currently lives in New Westminster, BC.