Almost every character in "Available Light," a first novel by Ellen Currie, is desperate for a baby, any baby, anybody's baby. Though all of them -- Kitty and her sister Eileen, Eileen's husband Gordon, Kitty's lover Rambeau and the highly peculiar poet manque' Mr. Conrad -- have had inadequate parenting, or maybe because the amount of nurturing they've had would be visible only under an electron microscope, they're desperate for babies.

Rambeau, who "had a lot of red hair on his shoulders and a little on the top of his head," was barely adolescent when quite without warning his mother deserted him and "the turquoise couch she seemed so proud of." Then there's Gordon, whose mother wouldn't come to Mexico with him because "Gordon bores her, he always has and he's always known it," and Eileen and Kitty, whose wild Irish mother Mick, "our Lady of the Perpetual Cardigan," is said to possess charm (but "I've seldom seen it close up," says Kitty). Then there's Mr. Conrad, who has been his mother's lover for 40 years. "It is not steady work but it is tiring."

Desperation drives the three men into the arms or at least into the orbit of a highly pregnant, highly unappealing woman named Dorinda, whose father is a geneticist and whose maternal instinct rivals that of Medea. Rambeau wants Dorinda's baby as a second chance at a life that so far has been untidily conducted. Gordon wants Dorinda's baby because he and Eileen have thus far been unsuccessful at conceiving one of their own. Mr. Conrad wants Dorinda's baby as a gift for fellow poet manque' Kitty. "I have so striven to obtain for you this baby," he tells her. "You are too old, forgive me, to make a baby."

Meanwhile, Kitty has a brief false pregnancy after Rambeau leaves her, or rather, after she has pushed him out ("Since she thinks she would like to be pregnant, pregnancy, on the whole, is unlikely"); and Eileen, who's had more than enough to do with basal thermometers, becomes convinced that she has experienced an immaculate conception in the parking lot of a New Jersey shopping center. On some level this belief makes sense since "my sister and I pretend to be virgins," says Kitty. "We pretended to be virgins before we knew what virgins were, we elaborated our pretenses once we had that information, and as long as our ma is breathing in and out we will be virgins still."

Actually, "Available Light" is not just about a longing for babies; it's about deep, dark longings in general. And the great appeal of the novel lies less in its story -- which at times is a bit gamy, at times pointlessly recondite -- but in its characters, its language and in Currie's ability to chronicle the secret aches and dreams of the heart.

Particularly touching -- and effective -- is Currie's treatment of the potholed love affair between Kitty, a commercial stylist turned spokeswoman for the apple industry, and Rambeau, a sometime musician. None too successful in her previous involvements, and reluctant to give in to her feelings about a man she thought would be "an interim attachment," Kitty "waited and waited and waited for Rambeau to leave" because, after all, what kind of a man was he when you stopped to think about it? "A gambler, a man who put his dollar down on me a little while and lost it." Rambeau is equally love-addled and equally reluctant. "When he can no longer help himself, he dials Kitty's number. Not her number, really, but various combinations of the digits that make up her number. For unknown reasons this offers him some relief." And he writes her letters, wonderfully literate outpourings about his mother and father and sisters, "great big juicy girls, full of mischief and popping out of their skins with sex," that constitute the most satisfying and engrossing part of the novel.

"Available Light" is populated by characters who expect unhappiness and who are perfectly at home in the dark. It is Currie's gift that she makes us care about those people even when they can't quite seem to care about themselves.