By Christin Lore Weber
Scribner, 256 pp.
In the culture of victimhood, Catholic women are the elder stateswomen-at least according to Christen Lore Weber's new novel, "Altar Music." 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 of the women central to the drama's second half. One after another, Weber punishes Meghan, Kate, Elise, and Suzanne with such an array of sorrow, 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 spoke face-to-face about sexual abstinence.he told her a boy might try to thrust his tongue in her mouth and how she must resist. French kissing it 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 that she 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, and that was that." Such hubris is immediately punished, of course, and poor Meghan has to spend the rest of the novel repenting.If the vision is badly flawed, the structure of the novel is certainly at 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 line narrative after Elise, the product of two generations of sad and sexually confused women, decides to become a nun despite her genius at the piano. As a novice trying to become complete in her devotion to God, Elise, renamed Michelle, uncovers more and more horrific experiences of sexual abuse-finally at the hands of rape-victim-turned-lesbian-predator, the very Mother Thomas Ann in whose charge many of the other novices also suffer abuse.
"Mother Thomas Ann didn't answer her. Instead she placed her hands on Sister 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 her born-again-Catholic-hater father, becomes another tragic victim. This we know from the treatment of the two young artists in the novitiate, that the church hates art and the artist. The born-again father as sexual predator expands the book's scope of blame to include all extremely religious Christians, not only the Catholic clergy. Such black and white depiction and Gothic horror over-simplifies and destroys any credibility in the argument Weber is trying to make.
Not only is the book over-plotted, it sinks into absurdity what should and could have been a poignant story of a young woman's struggle to find a place for her artistry in music while accepting her call to God. Weber does achieve notable moments when describing Elise's encounters with 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 each note against the previous one like a pearl precisely larger, a perfectly graded sphere of tone."
It's extremely difficult to convey the beauty and complexity of another art form in writing, and Weber is at her best when she does. Moreover, there is fine writing when Elise experiences her 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 familiar sexual issues that have been analyzed extensively since the '70s. Too many of Weber's cast of characters replicate and act out the most common mythologies about abuse in the Church. It's ironic that while she chooses to discount the silliest notions and prejudices about nuns by giving them voice in the form of our born-again-child-molester, she herself dramatizes the most vicious of these tales through her bad parish priest and Mother Tom. While it is true that forms of abuse do occur within the closed society of Catholic hierarchy, they probably do not occur all at once in one small Minnesota town, which could be renamed Lake Woe-be-here.