Three twentieth-century women experience crises of religious faith in this lyrical first novel, set in rural northern Minnesota between 1917 and 1965. For Megan and her daughter Kate, the Catholic doctrine as taught to them by the local priest challenges the sexual life of their marriages. For Kate’s daughter Elise, a budding classical pianist, her musical talent is seen as both a gift from God and a distraction from her chosen life as a nun. In all three cases, while certain (one may say the most vital) parts of these women’s lives are deliberately repressed, they cannot wholly be denied without consequence.
The book’s overall theme may well be autobiographical, as the author is herself a former nun. Though she no doubt knows the subject of which she writes, the continual examples of Catholicism’s repression of female sexuality and identity quickly grow wearisome. The novel’s overall tone is of quiet melancholy, with occasional, too-rare hints of the beauty that lies hidden underneath. There is much to praise in Altar Music: the author has a poetic touch with language, particularly in scenes describing the natural beauty of the area. Most characters, though, are rather joyless, and upon finishing this novel I felt as if I’d just come out from under a cloud of gloom. Both former Catholics and those who prefer introspective novels will likely have a greater appreciation for this book than I did.