It’s rare when a book is decidedly grim—dire, even—yet still manages to be as full of comfort, humor and hope as One Two Three, a thought-provoking allegory about corporate greed, environmental activism, parent-child relationships and the bonds and betrayals of sisterly love.
The residents of the fictional town of Bourne were poisoned 17 years ago by a chemical leak into the water supply, and “the only people who did not die or leave were the ones who could not.” The Mitchell family is among those still stuck in the fading, abandoned town, with matriarch Nora struggling for years to make ends meet and to bring a class-action lawsuit against Belsum Chemical. The leak caused her husband’s death not long before their triplet daughters were born, two of whom were affected in utero by the chemical.
With nicknames “One,” “Two” and “Three,” the girls, now 16 years old, take turns narrating. Mab describes herself as “a boring straight white girl”; Monday is autistic and maintains what’s left of Bourne’s library in their small home; and Mirabel is super smart but can’t walk or talk, so she communicates electronically through an app she calls “the Voice.” Frankel reveals their stories in artful prose laced with humor, much of it dark. For instance, when Mirabel gets angry at her sisters, she reminds herself “that if I killed them both I would never be able to use the toilet again when my mother was not home.”
The town is filled with wonderful characters, including Mrs. Shriver, the high school teacher who teaches history achronologically because she doesn’t believe in cause and effect. The plot takes off when a new student arrives from Boston named River Templeton. He’s the descendant of Belsum’s founders, who have plans to reopen the plant. Mab and Mirabel quickly fall for River, while all three sisters scheme clever ways to use him to gather information that will help their mother’s lawsuit.
The result is a warm, funny tour de force that has much to say about big business, the ways that tragedies unfold, the power of citizens to effect change and the passing of civic responsibility from one generation to the next. As Mirabel explains, “It’s not our mother—our mothers, the last generation—who can fix this. They can’t. It is up to us now, the daughters, to move our town forward, to save us all, to tell a different story.” One Two Three is a very different story indeed—one that is delightfully memorable and wildly empowering.