"They died instantly." When it comes to first sentences, it's hard to beat the car-crash immediacy of A Theory of Relativity. What follows, alas, is even more wrenching, if not nearly as black and white. Having perished in the wreck, Georgia and Ray McKenna leave behind an orphaned 1-year-old girl named Keefer--and handsome, self-involved Gordon McKenna decides to adopt his adored sister's child. Unfortunately, that's not what his affluent in-laws have in mind. The ensuing custody battle turns into a protracted legalistic horror show: a kind of Bleak House for the Oprah age, complete with appeals, retrials, PR campaigns, and even last-minute legislation.
The case is all about what's best for Keefer--right? Actually, it's also about what constitutes a family, how much genes determine our fate, and the precise meaning of blood relative. Author of the gripping family dramas The Deep End of the Ocean and The Most Wanted, Jacquelyn Mitchard is no stranger to this fictional territory. To her credit, she has created a story without heroes or villains--but also one that could have used a little more editorial nip-and-tuck. The narrative is strongly weighted toward monologue and exposition, and as a result, a compelling story ends up hampered by an awareness of its own consequence. (There's also an abundance of dialogue like "no wettie!" and "uckie," which reminds us that fiction is one place where toddlers should be seen and not heard.) Still, Mitchard is a canny student of the human heart, and in the age of cloning, in vitro fertilization, and alternative families, the nature versus nurture debate seems more relevant than ever. The author may be no Dickens, but you could call her sentimental in the same way: unafraid, that is, to appeal to her readers' strongest emotions. --Chloe Byrne