At first glance, this would appear to be a common real life storyline. But, somehow, Laurie Frankel has made something truly unique and refreshing with One Two Three. This is reminiscent of Erin Brockovich, the woman who helped build a case against Pacific Gas & Electric company in California in the 90’s after the company’s contamination of the groundwater adversely affected the town’s residents.
In One Two Three, Nora Mitchell is a Brockovich-esque character bent on making Belsum Chemical pay for the damage they did to the town of Bourne 16 years prior, killing or disfiguring many townsfolk and causing a rash of birth defects in children born after the contamination. After inflicting their damage, Belsum packed up and left town, covering up their part in the tragedy. Those without the means or ability to get out were left to battle the despair and destruction left in the company’s wake. In the present, Nora raises her 3 teenage triplets alone after losing her husband to the company’s cruelty and carelessness prior to the girls’ birth. Nora has fought tirelessly for sixteen years and her efforts have not brought justice for her town. Now, Belsum Chemical is returning with a rebranded business, assuring the town that this time they will save them and fulfill the promise they made years ago to bring prosperity to Bourne. Nora and her daughters can see the danger looming, and One Two Three is the story of their quest to save their town from a final death blow.
The power behind this novel lies with the characters. While Nora is a very pivotal character, she’s not the driving force. The novel is told from the perspectives of her three daughters. There’s Mab, one syllable. She was born first. She’s “the normal one.” A rarity in Bourne, she’s a gifted student with no ill physical or mental defects. She shoulders the loneliness and isolation, and a fair amount of bitterness, from her existence in Bourne. There’s Monday, the middle triplet, two syllables. Monday is the literal one. On the autism spectrum, Monday only likes yellow things except on rainy days when green is the only acceptable color, and she acts as the town librarian. Though the library is now empty, the books have been moved to the Mitchell home where they are stashed in various crevices about the house, locations of which are all catalogued precisely in Monday’s brain for quick accession when needed by a patron. Then there’s Mirabel, three syllables. Mirabel was the last triplet, her birth taking too long. Mirabel was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk or communicate the way other people do. From her wheelchair, she communicates with her family through a series of taps or through typing into her computerized system that translates what she needs to say. Mirabel is a brilliant marvel of introspection, and her chapters were always my favorite. She is the true philosophical spirit of Bourne, a town that’s been trapped within a shell that’s vaguely reminiscent of what it should be.
A truly beautiful story is told through strong character development, and Frankel is a master of character if this book is any indication. I fell in love with each of them, and not just the core three narrators. There’s the town pastor/doctor, a man who is both frustratingly optimistic and endearingly loyal to a town he could leave behind for the sake of chasing a more prosperous future. There’s the mayor, a man who is forever stuck between a rock and hard place wanting to make the right decision for his town but never really knowing how and always seeming to fall short. Through it all, he never stops trying to do right by them. There’s the history teacher, a woman who never tells history in chronological order because she has her own sense of logic when it comes to the true depth of the catalogue of time. And there are a whole host of other truly memorable and endearing characters who make up a tapestry of a beautiful town that’s completely whole despite its fractures and scars and missing pieces. Honestly, seeing what’s left of Bourne makes the reader understand the sheer gravity of what they’ve lost. If the people left are so lovable, what has faded away? There’s value also in what we don’t see.
Even the villainous characters had some form of depth, except for perhaps the unseen Duke Templeton, a man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s more of an absent evil overlord, the quintessential amoral CEO who holds the victims of his greedy whims away from view so he doesn’t have to view the damage his avarice has wrought upon them. Sadly, this is probably one of the most authentic characters in the book. Nathan, Duke’s son sent to the town with his family in tow to convince the town to embrace Belsum’s return, is a mix of raw emotion and insecurity beneath his charismatic facade. Seriously, every character in this book is important and has a role to play, and Frankel weaves them effortlessly together.
The writing in this novel is superb. It’s rare to find a book with three separate narrative voices that contain such unique and discernible qualities that it’s difficult to grasp the fact that the three voices were actually written by the same person. Especially during Mirabel’s sections, I was often left awestruck by the pure subtle and unpretentious power of the prose. The novel isn’t perfect. Especially toward the end, I felt we veered into the realm of unbelievability. The action really picks up and we’re thrust into a fast moving and suspenseful story full of unlikely surprises, but maybe that’s ok. Maybe what we need in the face of such real life social justice tragedies is a semblance of hope. That being said, there was a kind of open-endedness to the conclusion of the novel that leaves me a bit perplexed and a little uneasy. I look forward to having a discussion with someone who also reads this, because I’d like to get another reader’s interpretation to see if I’m perhaps viewing everything way too cynically. To be sure, I was left with a lot to think about.
Overall, I really loved this book and its charming, imperfect trio of heroines. 4 1/2 stars.
Published June 8, 2021 by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 1250236770. 400 pages.