THE ART OF MENDING

By Elizabeth Berg

Random House, 237 pp. $24.95

It seems appropriate that Laura Bartone, the protagonist in Elizabeth Berg's 13th novel, should be a quilter: someone who pieces together a whole out of fabric that might otherwise have been discarded. Berg constructs "The Art of Mending" in much the same way. She uses snapshots from an album, keenly observed recollections and fragments of conversation to form a pattern that is fully perceptible to the characters and the reader only when it is completed, a pattern they need to perceive their history in a new light. Books, like quilts -- like families -- have their stories to tell about love, conflict and loss, and the ways the present is shaped by the past.

Laura's memory of the past is jolted when she joins her siblings, Steve and Caroline, for the annual reunion at their parents' Minnesota home. Although they are there to enjoy the State Fair, Caroline uses the opportunity to reveal that she was abused by their mother. Laura and Steve have no memory of this. Moreover, their sister is known for "her theatrics, her fragility, her deliberate forays into melancholy, her complicated secrecy," casting doubt upon her accusations. An unexpected death and Caroline's persistence force them to confront the truths that indifference, impatience and denial have obscured.

Families have secrets; this comes as no surprise, but it is intriguing that one childhood should differ so markedly from the others. Berg highlights the discrepancy by capturing the sisters' memories, in particular, in remarkably sensuous and vivid detail. Laura, for example, recalls "a time I lay on my belly next to the stream that used to be half a block away from our house. It was a hot morning in July; I had just turned 10, and I'd wanted to go somewhere to be alone and consider my oldness -- two digits! I remember the algae swaying seductively in the greenish water, the quick thrill of a school of minnows swimming past, the grit of dirt against the exposed strip of skin at the top of my yellow pedal pushers. I remember the onion-scented smell of the long grass there, and the way it imprinted a pattern of itself against your skin after you lay in it." Next to Laura's images of a pleasant and protected youth, Caroline's memories of psychological violence, cold neglect and frightening rage are all the more chilling: "One time, when I was about 7, she came into my room and I was lying on the bed, naked -- I wanted to see how it felt to have all my skin against that silky coverlet I used to have. And she yanked me off the bed and shoved me up against the wall and said, 'Shame on you! Shame on you!' And shook me so hard I thought my neck would snap."

Even Laura admits, "There had been a thickness in the atmosphere at our house, a vague and ongoing sense of something amiss. It was the kind of thing you didn't particularly notice until you were away from it." More disturbing is the gradual recollection of her and Steve's own small cruelties toward Caroline. Looking at a photo of a Christmas tree, Laura realizes that the ornaments Caroline made are not in sight. "I told her to put them there because the tree was stationed in front of a window, and I said if she put them on the back, everyone would see her things first. Everyone outside. Years later, I told someone this, and we both laughed. It seemed funny then, just a little Father Knows Best type of sibling upsmanship. I see it differently now. Which is to say, I see it."

Caroline, in the process of divorcing and in therapy, is preoccupied not with how her siblings behaved but with validating her own memories of their mother. Laura, happily married to a sweet man who counsels patience and understanding toward everyone, is most concerned with repairing whatever damage has been done. "I think it's good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away," she declares early in the novel. "It's an antidote to wastefulness and to the need for immediate gratification. You get to see a whole process through, beginning to end, nothing abstract about it. You'll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there's an art to mending: If you're careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth."

As the novel progresses, secrets are revealed that shed light on the motivations of all the characters. But the confrontation between daughters and mother that finally comes receives short shrift. The ending is surprisingly weak, given the careful development and honest reflections that preceded it. Building the case that systematic, clandestine emotional abuse can damage not only the recipient but also the abuser and the entire family -- which Berg does well -- calls out for a resolution that acknowledges the serious, and presumably long-term adjustments required to heal. Sometimes a hug and a trip to Bloomingdale's shouldn't be enough to satisfy either the victim or the reader. In "The Art of Mending," reconciliation doesn't feel like it's really been earned.