Jacquelyn Mitchard, . . HarperCollins, $26 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-06-621023-0

When real life inspires fiction, an authentic and convincing voice is often the happy result. Here Mitchard draws on her own experience as an adoptive parent and as a one-time participant in a custody suit to produce gripping fiction on a par with her Oprah pick, The Deep End of the Ocean. Once again, she excels in rendering domestic scenes and family relationships while providing a suspenseful story that tugs at the heartstrings. Keefer Nye, only a year old when her parents die in a car crash near Madison, Wis., is the focal point of a bitter, protracted and precedent-setting custody battle. Keefer's bachelor uncle, 24-year-old science teacher Gordon McKenna, seems the most appropriate custodian for his tiny niece, since he helped his elderly parents care for Keefer while his sister (Keefer's mother, Georgia) battled cancer. Challenging his claim, the affluent Nye grandparents, country-club Floridians, believe that their niece and her husband, born-again Christians, should get custody. Mitchard's nuanced character portrayals are her strong suit; no one is without frailties. But she subtly favors the McKenna family, conveying their anguish when Keefer is swept out of their arms by a court order. The decision hinges on the fact that both Georgia and Gordon were adopted by the elder McKennas, and a state law decrees that adoptees are not considered blood relatives when they themselves wish to adopt a family member. Keefer becomes a pawn in legal maneuvering as the ability to nurture is weighed against genetic connection. A weeper that tackles provocative issues, this novel pushes all the right buttons. Agent, Jane Gelfman. 10-city author tour; simultaneous audio and large print editions; rights sold in France, Italy and the U.K. (July)

Forecast:After the disappointment of her second novel, The Most Wanted, Mitchard hits her stride again in this bound-to-be bestseller. The circumstances of her own life as a widow with five adopted children, the popularity of her syndicated newspaper column, and the recent movie version of The Deep End of the Ocean will be factors in a fast take-off.