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In 1964 in Catholic, Catholic Ireland, 17-year-old Joan falls hard for a young blond man she sees each evening, toiling up the hill on his bicycle near the factory where she works. She knows him only as "the messenger boy" for the town's biggest business, Egan's Builders and Supplies. They have never spoken, but she lurks, hoping to catch his eye.

Joan comes from working-class people who have fallen on hard times; her mother died giving birth to her seventh child, and her father took to the drink. All but one of her siblings are farmed out to other families, and Joan and her younger sister, Teresa, hunker down together in the family home, placating their father — when drunk, his temper is fierce.

Joan is determined to get out of town and better herself, but she can't get the messenger boy out of her mind.

It is only after they have met and fallen in love that she finds that the boy is Martin Egan, the rich son and heir to the business. And that stubborn determination he showed by tackling the steep hill night after night — well, that stubbornness is a crucial part of his personality.

Irish-born Bernadette Jiwa is the author of 10 books of nonfiction and a teacher of the craft of writing in Australia, where she now lives. "The Making of Her" is her debut novel, and is about societal pressure, the repression of women and, especially, adoption and motherhood.

When Joan falls pregnant, she and Martin concoct an elaborate scheme whereby he will go to London and she will follow. They'll get married, and they'll come home with the baby. But when he is summoned home early, it becomes clear the plan is not going to work.

Martin loves Joan, but he loves his mother and the family business more, and he begs her to give up the baby because an "illegitimate" child will hurt his future. We can have plenty of other babies later, he tells her. Joan doesn't agree, but while she sleeps, the nuns quietly take baby April away.

The memory of April haunts Joan's every day, keeping her from bonding with their next daughter, Carmel, and slowly hardening her against Martin.

The novel moves smoothly between the 1960s and the 1990s, when April reappears, now in her 30s and with a child of her own.

Babies are the heart of this book — those plump, sweet-smelling creatures with their starfish hands and toothless smiles and their deep, deep power. Babies determine the fate of nearly every character in this novel.

Jiwa's characters are broadly drawn — the good people are very good, and the bad are quite bad, and the ending, while satisfying, might be a bit too pat. But she gives us a lot to think about, especially now. While the issue of accidental pregnancy might have seemed an old-fashioned problem just a year ago, it's suddenly deeply relevant again.

Jiwa reminds us that no such decision can be made lightly, and whatever happens will follow the parents — but mostly the mother — for the rest of their life.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.

The Making of Her

By: Bernadette Jiwa.

Publisher: Dutton, 336 pages, $26.