Altar Music
By Christin Lore Weber
Scribner, 256 pp.

In the culture of victimhood, Catholic women are the elderstateswomen-at least according to Christen Lore Weber's new novel, "AltarMusic." In this calculated book, the women of a small Minnesota town are the victims of the Catholic clergy, both male and female, of stifling social norms in regard to sexuality and femininity and the economics of their class. Helplessness takes center stage in the lives of these women, and by the time Weber is done conflating the spiritual, artistic, and sexual, it seems a miracle any female survives Christianity at all.

Approximately the first half of "Altar Music" is taken up with establishing, in a highly disjointed fashion, the early lives ofthe women central to the drama's second half. One after another,Weber punishes Meghan, Kate, Elise, and Suzanne with such an array ofsorrow, it's little wonder they turn to the Church for solace.

What waits for them there is the likes of Father Murphy. "Father Murphy sat with Kate in the church basement, where the spokeface-to-face about sexual abstinence.he told her a boy might try tothrust his tongue in her mouth and how she must resist. French kissingit was called. It was a foretaste of sexual intercourse, with the man's tongue imitating what his penis wanted to do. A boy's penis had a mind of its own."

Kate eventually becomes frigid, and we learn only a the very end thatshe had a child out of wedlock that died and was buried under the homely hollyhocks the novel constantly refers to. It would have been worth the writers efforts to provide some of this motivation earlier, but that is not the method here. Weber prefers to unload all the secrets at the end, which include a brutal sodomy with a marble (!) curtain rod. "How could love be sinful?" pregnant Meghan asks at one point. "It couldn't be, andthat was that." Such hubris is immediately punished, of course, andpoor Meghan has to spend the rest of the novel repenting.

If the vision is badly flawed, the structure of the novel is certainlyat fault also. The leaps in time and place and character from chapter to chapter allow for little sense of continuity other than the idea that these women certainly had a hard lot listening to the priest and ruining their lives. The reader not dare put the book down for a day since It will require restarting the entire enterprise

And frankly the litany of sorrow and abuse is hardly bearable the first time around. When Father Murphy, dispensing the traditional, if rigid advice about sexual matters to the females of the town, is revealed to have an unspiritual interest in the masturbatory fantasies of the main character's mother, Meghan, and eventually married her in a pseudo-religious ceremony, the plot reaches laughable heights. Is no one free of the scourge of demeaning and unhealthy sex?

The second half of the novel follows a more conventional straight linenarrative after Elise, the product of two generations of sad andsexually confused women, decides to become a nun despite her genius atthe piano. As a novice trying to become complete in her devotion toGod, Elise, renamed Michelle, uncovers more and more horrificexperiences of sexual abuse-finally at the hands of rape-victim-turned-lesbian-predator, the very Mother Thomas Ann in whosecharge many of the other novices also suffer abuse.

"Mother Thomas Ann didn't answer her. Instead she placed her hands onSister Michelle's face and tilted it up. Her breath smelled of mint.Her tongue flicked against Michelle's closed lips.

"'Open,' she whispered."

Suzanne, the genius poet, who was sexually abused by herborn-again-Catholic-hater father, becomes another tragic victim. Thiswe know from the treatment of the two young artists in the novitiate,that the church hates art and the artist. The born-again father assexual predator expands the book's scope of blame to include allextremely religious Christians, not only the Catholic clergy. Suchblack and white depiction and Gothic horror over-simplifies and destroysany credibility in the argument Weber is trying to make.

Not only is the book over-plotted, it sinks into absurdity what shouldand could have been a poignant story of a young woman's struggle to finda place for her artistry in music while accepting her call to God.Weber does achieve notable moments when describing Elise's encounterswith music through her mentor, Sister Mary, who can remain unblemished,it seems, because of her rich parents and her own musical genius.

"One year later Elise played that rondo in her recital, stringing eachnote against the previous one like a pearl precisely larger, a perfectlygraded sphere of tone."

It's extremely difficult to convey the beautyand complexity of another art form in writing, and Weber is at her bestwhen she does. Moreover, there is fine writing when Elise experiencesher first spiritual commitments within the order and observes the beauty of the rugged lake shore facing the convent: "She saw no islands. Clean. Simple. Pure. Maybe not like Bach at all. Like Gregorian chant, perhaps, or at its most dramatic, Palestrina."

But too much of the book is taken up with the exploration of familiarsexual issues that have been analyzed extensively since the '70s.Too many of Weber's cast of characters replicate and act out the mostcommon mythologies about abuse in the Church. It's ironic that whileshe chooses to discount the silliest notions and prejudices about nunsby giving them voice in the form of our born-again-child-molester, sheherself dramatizes the most vicious of these tales through her badparish priest and Mother Tom. While it is true that forms of abuse dooccur within the closed society of Catholic hierarchy, they probably donot occur all at once in one small Minnesota town, which could berenamed Lake Woe-be-here.