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How Laurie Frankel's Latest Novel 'One Two Three' Explores Disability

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When I picked up a copy of the new Laurie Frankel novel, “One Two Three” and realized that two out of its three young narrators had a disability, I was curious how the book would deal with the topic. To be honest, as the parent of a child with a physical disability that limits their mobility, and an editor for The Mighty, I was naturally going to be a tough audience. To my knowledge, the author does not have direct experience with disability, not that this is a necessary prerequisite for writing about these issues. But I worried it would contain tired (and often damaging) disability tropes, as all too often happens, viewing disability as a burden or tragedy, or that the disabled characters would serve simply as inspiration porn. I had read and enjoyed Frankel’s previous novel “This Is How It Always Is,” a New York Times bestseller and chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club, so I thought I would give this one a chance.

As with so many of our real-life towns and communities, the fictional town of Bourne has a water problem; in this case, the town’s water was contaminated by a chemical company. The book is told from the perspectives of three young women (triplets) born after the contamination — Mirabel, who uses a wheelchair and an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate; Monday, who is neurodivergent; and Mab, who is considered “normal.” Another main character is the mother of the triplets, who is suing the chemical company.

How happy I am to say my initial skepticism was misplaced. I found the book offered a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of disability. I loved how it features a main character using an electronic speech generator in conversation with others, which is not something we see much in popular fiction.

I also appreciated how the author seems to directly address the issue of inspiration porn. The mother, Nora, discusses with her daughter Mirabel how she would make a great therapist one day. Nora talks about how proud she is of her daughter, saying, “I don’t mean the sight of you or the fact of you… I don’t mean you inspire people with how brave you are or any bullshit like that.”

The book explores what it means to be “normal” because in their town so many children were born with disabilities, they nearly outnumber those considered more typically developing. In addition, the town of Bourne has built accessibility into their physical environment, with ramps and elevators a common sight. This seems to support the idea of the social model of disability.

While Frankel questions the concept of “normal,” she also acknowledges the challenges people with disabilities face. She writes:

“Out there in the rest of the world, the brazen, ignorant, nosy, rude, and clueless come right up to people who use wheelchairs and say things like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ In Bourne, no one says things like that, not because we’re not sometimes brazen, ignorant, nosy, rude, and clueless, but because, at least on this front, we know it’s not that simple. ‘Nothing’ would be a true answer. So would ‘Many things.'”

It turns out the author has done research on the disability community, which you can see her discuss more in a transcript of an interview on her website.

While I ultimately felt good about how the book portrayed physical disability, I was curious about what someone from the neurodivergent community’s take would be. I saw this review on the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati’s website by Dr. Kara Ayers, which offered this critique:

“I found Mirabel’s reflections on the trappings of stereotypes about nonspeaking people very powerful. I wish Monday, the character described as ‘on the spectrum,’ consistently demonstrated the same level of depth in development. At times, clichés of autism seemed overly relied upon, like her aversion to foods that were not yellow.”

It sounds like at least to this expert, there was room for improvement. Ayers also had this to say: “While Frankel’s descriptors of disability felt researched rather than authentic at times, she did center the autistic perspective with Monday’s telling of her own experience of meltdowns.”

The book itself is not perfect, but it is thoughtful and nuanced, and I appreciate its close look at living with disability. It doesn’t claim to have all of the answers or try to wrap everything up in a pretty bow. It often subtly conveys its points, such as the line about adaptive equipment, “We understand not everything that looks broken actually is.”

I encourage you to read this book and pass it along to others to discuss. It would make a great holiday gift and/or book club pick.

Originally published: January 7, 2022
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