PAINTED DRESSES is not a story of the bittersweet romance of two middle-aged lovers, though in the hands of another writer it might have been. Shelby Hearon throughout her fiction is concerned with the influences that shape us, our false starts in life, the paths that lead nowhere and our difficult return from them. Painted Dresses gives itself room fully to explore these matters. It opens some 30 years before the lovers meet, and in skillfully alternating segements traces their lives. The romance that the novel is really about does not take place until it is nearly over, though in another sense, as the ending makes clear, it was taking place all along.

One character after another in this novel is haunted by moments from the past. Nell Woodard, its painter-heroine, obsessively remembers the white china roses in the house of her aunts, and in some ways her whole artistic career is an attempt to recapture their purity. Nicholas Clark is a biochemist whose career, as if to deny the power of the past, is devoted to refuting theories of predestination. Both have been stifled by early experiences in their family lives, and spend years trying to work them out. They exhibit what are described in a psychiatric paper in the middle of the novel as "Affects in Boderline Disorders," which are "characterized by a sense of longing for something (or someone) that is not merely absent but nonexistent, or at best undefinable, something that leaves one feeling empty or hungry, 'hopeful' in a very hopeless way."

Nell was raised in an extended family so ingrown as to be positively incestuous; her stepfather, as if to express its true spirit, abused her sexually when she was a child. Nell is the one member of the family who wants to remove herself from this tangle. She is an artist not just because she is obsessed with recovering shades of color from her remembered past, but also because she has always had her own peculiar vision of things. When she decides to pursue an artistic career she must leave her husband and child, a family and a social class that patronizes artists, and move to Santa Fe, where "it didn't matter." She is obsessed by a fantasy from her childhood, that her real father led an alternate life that she might have seen, and when she meets a rakish boozy journalist who reminds her of her father, she strikes up an affair that lasts through the years when she is establishing herself. He is a kind loving man, but his alcoholism makes him frequently absent even when the are together, a fantasy more than a real person for her.

Nicholas has perhaps been so obsessed by theories of predestination because his life has seemed predestined from the start, controlled by a malicious older brother and a family tradition of intellectualism. He too chooses a mate largely because of a childhood fantasy, though rather a more sexual one than Nell's, but his wife had previously been a girlfriend of his brother, and that fact dominates their relationship. She resents his work and seeks out men who give more of themselves to her, while he dreams of a relationship like that of an older couple he has admired, where both partners have their own work and a quiet domestic life beside it. It is hardly a surprise when, on a day that marks a highlight of Nicholas' career, his wife leaves him.

Like the lives she is describing, Shelby Hearon's narrative grows more staisfactory as it goes along; its early episodes can seem fragmentary and puzzling. Nell's family is too cutely eccentric to be believed --- their rhyming names are especially annoying --- and Nicholas' brother similary seems too wicked. One can't help thinking that her lovers' paths, in two very different lives, cross once too often, though there is a thematic reason for having them do so: She is showing how stubbornly these people refuse to find each other. In this novel and in the earlier A Prince of a Fellow , Hearon has a tendency to connect things too neatly. One wishes for the comparative simplicity of her Hannah's House , a touching story of a mother and daughter.

Yet as in both these previous novels her heroine is an extremely engaging woman, who keeps picking up the pieces of her life and starting again. Though wrong at times about what she wants, she is persistent in trying to find it. Hearon's novels are intricately structured --- their effortless flow is deceiving --- and she writes with the buoyant precise prose of a veteran novelist. If her story is unsatisfactory at first, is builds in momentum once her characters reach adulthood, and ends wonderfully. The long scenes after Nell and Nicholas finally meet are the strongest in the novel.

Hearon is not saying something so implistic as that her characters were made for each other, but that it took them half a lifetime to be ready to love, just as Nell, after years of painting the dresses that are really portraits of herself, is finally ready as the novel ends to turn to other subjects. It is right, too, that Hearon does not allow them some simplistic way to escape their pasts; she plops them right down in the middle of the whole mess. Nevertheless, they want to stay together. Painted Dresses is not so much the story of a love affair as of its prolonged beginning, and it does not suggest its lovers will live happily ever after. It does suggest that after years of sorting through things they don't really want, they are ready at last to live.