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Altar Music

Altar Music

A Novel

  • reading group guide
Enter a Mysterious, Cloistered World Full of Passion and Regret, Where the Lines Between the Sexual, Artistic, and Religious Become Blurred.
This achingly beautiful and revelatory first novel is the story of three generations of strong-willed women and their battles to balance personal longings with the disciplines of their church: Meghan, who dismisses the priest's injunctions about sex until tragedy befalls her family; Kate, who so fears God's power to destroy that she shuts herself off from emotion completely; and, finally, Elise, whose connection to unknowable forces drives her into the most exhilarating, disillusioning, and haunting experience of her life.
Written with lyricism and emotional authenticity, Altar Music is a portrait of a nun as a young girl, an epic tale of a family both defined and divided by its religious beliefs, and a powerful story about mothers and daughters.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 256 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684868653 | 
  • March 2001
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Once music touches your soul

you never can be free of it.

It will haunt you

all your life.

Sister Mary's Music Notebooks, 1944

Each morning the road to the inn was littered with carcasses of frogs. Elise crouched on her haunches like Grampa Pearson and examined one of the flattened creatures. Leathery brown, a pancake frog. Not real. Real frogs, green, covered with slime, hid in the tall grass by the old houseboat. If you scuffed along, they jumped and landed with a thud in the shallow water by the reed bed. Some were big as chipmunks. Those could not be caught with hands, only with a pail... see more

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Women's lost worlds
  • Kate (on page 45) thinks of all that God can take away. "Husbands, fathers, brothers, music even. God could take you life if he wanted. God could take anything. What could a woman do but endure, be faithful, and hope to be spared some small thing she loved, something perhaps God didn't want?" Each woman in the novel sacrifices a vital part of herself because she believes it is necessary if she is to live within the limits of whatever life God or the church or the society demands. What feelings arise in these women upon such choices?
  • Such sacrifices are not usually discrete, self-contained forfeitures, but more often represent an entrée into a whole world of possibilities - in some ways, an alternative life - now lost, as in Elise's potential future as a pianist. Imagine and describe the lost opportunities, the lost worlds or lives of each of the following: Meghan, Kate, Elise, Suzanne, Isabel, Sister Thomas Ann, and Sister Mary. Would those other opportunities or alternative worlds have been realistic?
  • Can you tell similar stories of women whose lives have intersected with your own? Is Kate right -- is it God who takes away what we love? Discuss whether or not it is possible to live without such loss.

Promises
  • Elise and Suzanne promise one another: I will never leave you. In what ways did they keep
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