In One Two Three, your suspension of disbelief, the sense that you’re in a fable, comes at the outset: “My first memory is of the three of us, still inside, impatient to be born. We were waiting, like at the top of those water slides you see on TV.” These are the words of Mab Mitchell, the firstborn of triplets in Seattle writer Laurie Frankel’s new novel, out June 8. All three sisters, as teenagers, narrate the novel in alternating chapters, titled One, Two, Three. Get it?
If not, Frankel has more numeric distinctions: Mab is the monosyllable, the so-called “normal” One (though she dislikes the distinction). Monday (clap with me, Mon-day) is Two and on the autism spectrum—enthralled with the color yellow and stridently logical: “I relate [facts] responsibly and appropriately. I never lie. I am also not a day.” Mirabel is Three. The brightest of the bunch, she was born last and is unable to speak legibly or move her limbs other than her right arm and hand, “which are as finely honed as something NASA built,” so she uses a wheelchair.
Yet none of them is an outlier. The novel is set in a tiny, fictional town called Bourne—the antiquated term for stream or goal, not Jason. Seventeen years earlier, a company called Belsum Chemical came to Bourne and opened a plant. The runoff poisoned the town’s water, which turned brown and rank, then very bright green. Tumors bubbled on dogs. Sickness hit the people: migraines, miscarriages, birth defects, disabilities, deaths. There was a long lawsuit, driven by the Mitchell sisters’ mom, which went nowhere. The plant closed, but its effects linger. The town emptied out and those who stayed still won’t drink the tap water.
All this is the setup for the present action: The Templeton family, who own Belsum Chemical, return and want to revive the plant. They have science proving it’s safe! And jobs! The Mitchells, though, don’t trust it. Their mom has continued to seek facts proving Belsum’s responsibility for the town’s strife. Her seeming break comes when they get an inside man. Or an inside boy—the Templeton son, River, who happens to take a shine to Mab. From here, One Two Three unfurls rather expectedly. We get an underdog-versus-
corporate-villain plot. We get some small-town subterfuge (and Nancy Drew references). We get a young-love-amid-warring-families story (and Romeo and Juliet references).
The book reads as a full-hearted, ecological fable—with insights into the contradictions in how our culture views and talks about people with disabilities. Once its plot kicks in, after about 100 pages, One Two Three makes for a propulsive read. How much you enjoy that read depends partly on how charmed you are by Frankel’s low-key wit (“unrequited love of one’s lawyer seemed more likely to result in good legal counsel than the requited kind”) and by the quirks and gimmicks. When the town’s library closed, for instance, Monday rescued books; now she serves as Bourne’s ad hoc librarian from her house. And that nominal wordplay persists. See the first names of a family called Grove—Apple, Hickory, Elm. Or the fact that this book, which starts with birth, sneaks into its last sentence the phrase “Bourne again.”