Altar music, for those who hear it, must be a partial lament. Altar Music is the first novel by Weber, a former nun who writes with the spare cadence of prayer, and the story itself becomes a formal ritual heavy with incense and portent. The plot focuses on Elise, raised in a remote town as the third generation of religious women limited by their notions of faith. As a little girl, she observes and absorbs the emotional sacrifices her mother and grandmother made in their attempt to be good Christian women. The choices available to them in that constricted role are frustrating and painful to witness. The Church's historical interpretation of godly behavior and its hypocrisy force these women to sublimate their passions and their marriages, shriveling spirit and hope. As Elise reaches her teens, her talent for music helps channel a sensitive, creative nature destined to be criticized and controlled. Elise's mother and grandmother encourage her to take piano lessons at the local convent, where a townswoman has escaped to the cloth after the annulment of a brief, abusive marriage. Elise's mother befriends this nun, visiting her regularly and making her godmother to her daughter. As she matures, Elise discovers that her passion for music and her godmother's quiet influence has created a call to be a bride of Christ. The vows and rituals and romantic sacrifice of her very self might redeem and heal her legacy of anger and pain, but first Elise must solve the mystery of spiritual marriage alone. Weber's voice speaks of experience and deep contemplation, and while her characters have no easy answers, she gives them the dignity of spiritually courageous lives.
Deanna Larson is a reviewer in Nashville.