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For Ellen Franck, delight, devotion, and despair are all wrapped up in a Pickle.

That's what she calls her little niece Nicole, whom she's adored since the moment she saw her. Ellen lives in Manhattan and Nicole in Maine, so each visit is an event. They spend all their time together, eating the same food, sleeping in the same bed, waking up beside each other. It is behavior, Laura Zigman writes in "Dating Big Bird," "completely befitting two people in love."

It's a description that points to the two blots on Ellen's life. Although she has plenty - good health and good friends, a great job in the fashion world and an apartment in the Village - she has no child to call her own, and no ready prospect of getting one.

She's been seeing Malcolm, but in the six months since they met in his writing class, it's been as though she's been chasing a dead man. Malcolm's son died five years before, at age 7, of leukemia, and ever since it has been his only important fact of life.

She's run the gantlet and gamut of men: the ones who didn't really matter, the one who broke her heart, the one she would have married if not for his wife. Now there's Malcolm, whom she thinks, or hopes, she can revive, although there's been no evidence of thawing.

Meanwhile, she's feeling the gnawing of her deepest desire. It practically provokes a crisis when, while walking in Manhattan, she espies Amy Jacobs, Miss Everything of her graduating class at Brookline High, pushing a stroller. It's only when Ellen learns that the child isn't hers - and that they share the baby burn - that they become friendly.

Pretty soon, they've hatched a plan - a nine-month plan - to become pregnant, one way or the other.

For Ellen, the way is artificial. She decides, finally, that Malcolm isn't going to be her answer, or rather, she suggests to him that he could be, and it is an element in their breakup. So she starts accumulating data on sperm donors, coparenting, things to expect in early pregnancy, adoption, and the like. Month by month, the piles of books and pamphlets grow, just as her belly would have.

Sly ironies like that - and the one that she craves a Pickle, even though she only wishes she were pregnant - abound in "Dating Big Bird," the second novel by Zigman, who grew up in Newtonville but now resides in Washington, D.C. The local flavor is limited to Ellen's Brookline roots, and a reference to light dawning over Marblehead.

She reserves most of her observations for the dating, predating, and postdating lives, but Ellen's occupation as a flack for a New York designer affords a platform for riffs on the fashion industry, such as when she describes samples from the new fall line: "They were all black, gray (`the new black'), and brown (`the other new black')." She's troubled by a small voice inside spouting the fashion heresy that "they're just clothes."

Big Bird, despite title billing, plays only a small role that is most significant as "an example of how carried away you can get when you want a child as much as [Ellen] did." The "Sesame Street" character's qualifications for fatherhood: He's warm, affectionate, has a stable job, and you always know where to find him. Ellen takes to going to sleep with him when Nicole, in a touching act of pity, gives Ellen her Big Bird doll because she doesn't have a "hud-band."

Though Zigman keeps the pace lively and the tone frothy, one polemical undertone is that men, as potential mates, are akin to lice. Only two of the main characters are men, and they come with baggage. Among the bit players, the men are timid asses, nebbishy, or merely present. Only the kindly Indian doctor Ellen consults about conceiving could be called admirable.

The women aren't idealized - one of Ellen's best friends is convinced that every man is either "wacko or fag" - but they do cover a broader range.

As befits the fashion setting, there are plenty of stars on the periphery, but only Demi Moore enters the dialogue, and then only briefly. Given Moore's famously public pregnancies, perhaps she'll be interested in the lead role if this story comes to the screen. Its pleasant, low-brow tenor suggests it would be a perfect fit for film. After all the emotional turmoil of Ellen's quandary, there's even an upbeat ending. Roll take.