one two three: A Novel by Laurie Frankel is about the tiny town of Bourne (anywhere USA) that suffered an eco-disaster after a chemical plant diverted a river, then dumped a poisonous chemical into the water supply. The Belsum Chemical Company, owned by the Templeton family, denied any responsibility for the increase of cancer deaths, tumors, and children born with birth defects. Experts and government employees were bribed and the company was never held responsible. Many of the remaining few residents are either too poor or physically unable to leave. Now seventeen years later, Belsum has decided to return to Bourne and start manufacturing the same chemical again.
The story is uniquely told by the sixteen-year-old triplet daughters of Nora Mitchell. Nora’s husband died from cancer after the poisoning when the girls were only three months old. She has been trying to push forward a class action lawsuit against Belsum since the triplets were born. Unfortunately, there is no smoking gun to prove Belsum Chemical knew of the harm it would cause. Nora works as the town’s only counselor, has a second job as a bartender, and sells baked goods to make ends meet. She is completely devoted to her three unique girls.
The novel’s cover with a green, a yellow, and a red leaf sets the stage for the girls’ personalities. Mab (one) the firstborn and considered “normal”. She is in Track A classes for school. She is studying for her SAT and longs to leave Bourne to go to college. Monday (two), the second-born is on the spectrum. She is fixated on the color yellow unless it is raining and she prefers green. When the town’s library was shut down, Monday took in most of the books. She stores them throughout the house and operates a makeshift library from there. Monday is in Track B classes at school because her body works all the way, but her brain does not. Mirabel (three), the third born is a genius but confined to a wheelchair due to her birth defects. She can only speak through a voice box. Mirabel is in Track C classes because of her congenital anomalies. Because she is so smart, she basically teaches herself. She often goes to work with Nora and is an astute listener.
Their world is upended when Nathan Templeton moves back to Bourne to reopen the plant. He brings his wife, Apple, and sixteen-year-old son, River. Nathan is there to assure everyone that the plant is safe and their lives will be better. The Mitchell’s don’t believe it, but many of the other residents do. River befriends the triplets, which leads to many complications.
While each of the three girls is endearing, I was truly moved by Mirabel’s story. She knows there are people who can “expect to, strive to, feel entitled to be happy. And people who cannot.” Because of her physical limitations, it is expected that she will not be happy. But, Mirabel has all the normal emotions of a teenaged girl, including the desire for romantic love. The unfairness of her situation is heartbreaking at times.
This is a story about righting wrongs and letting go of past hurts. It is about sisterhood and how our next generation is our future. It is about corporations putting profit over people. On the downside for me, it is a coming-of-age story, that occasionally feels more like a YA novel than adult fiction. I didn’t like the ending. I don’t think the girls’ solution to the problem would be effective in the long run.
Thank you to NetGalley and Henry Holt and Co for my advanced reader copy! The hardcover is 400 pages. The expected publication date is June 8, 2021.
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