Call me late to the party, but I just read my first Jodi Picoult novel, and it probably won't be my last. I used to think I'd rather read a months-old People magazine than one of Picoult's endless chain of bestselling "women's" novels. But it turns out she's one of those rare ultracommercial authors, like Stephen King, who really can write: not just clever, headlong plots, but also crisp, interesting sentences and realistic characters. You could do a lot worse on an airplane.

"Sing You Home" is the 17th work of fiction from the Long Island prodigy who constructs stories around controversial current issues that raise intense moral dilemmas for her characters and, by extension, her readers. The latest maneuvers four causes celebres -- gay rights, the controversy over the beginning of life, the clash between religion and politics, the erosion of privacy -- like giant cruise ships into one small harbor.

Here's how it's done: Music therapist Zoe Baxter and her husband, a landscaper/recovering alcoholic/surfer named Max, are trying to have a baby. Infertility issues have driven them to high-tech solutions, but Zoe keeps miscarrying. She's obsessed with getting pregnant, and Max can't deal with it anymore: "Our sex life had become like Thanksgiving dinner with a dysfunctional family -- something you have to show up for, even though you're not really having a good time." The marriage crumbles.

Out on his own, Max relapses into alcoholism, but then finds Jesus and moves in with his born-again brother and sister-in-law. Zoe is hired by a school counselor named Vanessa to work with a troubled teenager, then is shocked to find herself falling in love for the first time with a woman. (The religious conversion is as lame as the lesbian one is enthralling.) Zoe and Vanessa cross the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border to marry, then decide to reclaim Zoe's remaining embryos so they can have a baby.

But they need Max's permission, and Max is now the pawn of a high-profile leader of the religious right. He wants to get the embryos and give them to his brother, who has the same infertility issues he does. The whole group ends up in court, along with the lawyers, the media and a cascade of plot twists. Both Zoe and Max have secrets that won't be secret much longer.

"Sing You Home," by Jodi Picoult (Atria, March 2011) Photo Credit: Handout

At first, I could almost hear the dramatic machinery whirring but soon found myself swept up by the voices of the three rotating narrators -- Max, Zoe and Vanessa. Picoult is trying to make you think, but she also wants to make you laugh, as in the scene where Zoe and Vanessa imagine a silly sequel to "Romeo and Juliet" ("Romeo grows a mullet and becomes addicted to online poker").

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I felt no need to listen to the CD that comes with the book, including a song for each chapter performed by a singer-songwriter friend of the author's. I can't stand this sort of thing, and I can't say my mind was changed when I listened after all.

Or maybe I'd just had enough mind-changing for one day.

SING YOU HOME, by Jodi Picoult. Atria Books, 466 pp., $28.