York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2000
A 2001 New York Times Book Review New and Noteworthy Paperback
Top 15 List of Amazon.com's Editor's Recommendations for Fiction
An Original Voices September Selection of Borders Books
A Barnes & Noble Editor's Pick for Women's fiction
Winner of the WLA Banta Award
2000 - Jennifer Barth, Editor; Bloomsbury British Edition titled
"Waltzing through Flaws")
Description of Novel
a tension that builds from the first page, I
Loved You All is a lyrical, funny, and moving portrait of family
life and of the peculiarly American politics of abortion rights.
With her extraordinary talent for blending the political with the
personal, Sharp demonstrates once again that she is a writer of
formidable abilities. Her
new novel tells the story of a family living in the bleak prison
town of Stein, New York. Marguerite
Daigle, who describes herself as a “seventh generation lapsed
Louisiana Catholic” and “a displaced person in the middle of
nowhere,” holds her family together passionately and creatively, if
unconventionally. All that
unravels in the summer of 1977 when her daughters are eight and fifteen
and the pressures of life as a single mother begin to weigh too heavily
on Marguerite’s shoulders. Her
only relief comes in the form of more alcohol than is good for her. When
her brother encourages her to dry out at a Louisiana home called The
Place, Isabel Flood, a
local baby sitter and religious right-to-lifer steps in to care for
Marguerite’s children in Stein. Isabel
Flood’s influence on Marguerite’s older daughter Mahalia grows until
it is stronger than her own mother’s. When
Marguerite returns after cleaning up her life, she finds that her life
is no longer entirely her own.
down to read reviews)
"What memorable characters Paula Sharp creates in I Loved You All and
what a great story she
tells. Sharp writes with splendid humor and
intelligence, nowhere more so than in dealing with the
tricky right to
life debate. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book."
Weekly (June 26, 2000, Starred Review): "About midway
through Sharp's fourth novel, the eight-year-old narrator, Penny Daigle,
does a flip in the air for the "sheer perilous pleasure" of
it. The same sensation is elicited in the reading of this
exuberant and often hilarious story about growing up in bleak small-town
New York with a restless and loving family. It's 1977, and Penny
Daigle, a girl of relentless energy and curiosity, and her uncertain and
judgmental sister, 15-year-old Mahalia, must deal with their single
mother Marguerite's alcoholism and eventual departure to "The
Place," a home in Louisiana for recovering alcoholics.
Marguerite's boyfriend, a parole officer at the big state prison in
town, and her puckish brother, F.X., a reporter given to dazzling
monologues, are going along with Marguerite to keep an eye on her, and
so Mahalia and Penny are saddled with straitlaced, pro-life babysitter
Isabel Flood. Without taking sides or descending into cliché,
Sharp (Crows over a Wheatfield) brilliantly navigates the
political and religious waters that swirl around the pro-life movement
as Isabel seeks to spread her message around town with Mahalia's
zealous, and Penny's reluctant help. On the way, Penny meets a
carnival of characters, including Mrs. Fury, who places Penny before a
mirror to show her who her worst enemy
is, and shy Katie, who, at Penny's urging, stows away in a van headed
for Albany. As the town divides over the abortion issue, the
dynamics of public dispute are mirrored in the sensitive negotiations of
the Daigle family when Marguerite returns to find Mahalia determined to
live with Isabel, now totally convinced that abortion is a sin.
The narrative moves swiftly from conflict to conflict, buoyed by Sharp's
perfect timing and occasionally ecstatic prose that renders water
moccasins as "black ink dropped in water" and a truck
headlight as "a tilted goblet of gold liquid."
Seligman, The New York Times Book Review
(August 27, 2000): "Paula Sharp's fourth novel is strangely gentle and funny for a
book about the escalating defiance of anti-abortion fanatics in the late
1970's. .... Sharp has the born novelist's gift
of breathing life into her characters. Even the minor characters
seem to get up and step off the page. The addled churchwomen in
Isabel's circle, in particular, are funny, endearing creations. I
could have done happily with more of just about everybody .... I loved
this book, probably more than it deserves, but I can't help it --
Sharp's gifts are enormous."
Olivia Abel, People Magazine
(October 2, 2000):
"[T]his beautifully written story, full of wry observations about
human nature and the abortion debate, will resonate with all those who
have ever laughed or cried at their own family's
Ed Neuert, Salon.com (August 24, 2000):
"Barely three pages into Paula Sharp's second novel, the
realization crept in: that I might be holding the next Oprah book
in my hands, and that to my horror I was unabashedly enjoying it....
Sharp manages to construct deep characters and complex relations with
just a few sentences -- the sign of a natural storyteller. She
portrays the right-to-lifers of the small prison town in a
well-balanced, almost loving manner. As Penny's uncle says of
these virulent souls, 'the worst things people ever do, they do because
they believe they're fighting what's wrong. In that way, good
introduces evil back into the world and the circle in complete.'
That's what this novel is: complete."
The Literal Mind Book Review: (October 18, 2000):
"While the abortion movement of the late 1970's plays a pivotal
role in I Loved You All, to claim this book is only about
abortion is a grave injustice. What Paula Sharp's novel is really
about is the Daigle family: Marguerite, a "seventh generation
lapsed Louisiana Catholic" who has been transplanted to upstate New
York and then widowed; her oldest daughter, Mahalia, a 15-year-old with
an intense desire for structure and good ness in her life; and Penny, an
incorrigible 8-year old ... [A]s prominent as the [abortion] issue is in
this novel, it's never as important as the characters themselves, and
that's how Sharp succeeds where other novelists have failed. The
characters are vivid, and Sharp's writing is lyrical and piercing
throughout ... I Loved You All is a stunning accomplishment that
would have been a mess in less competent hands. One can only
wonder what she'll do to surpass this."
Redbook (December Editor's Pick) (December,2000):
" A precocious, hyperactive 8-year-old narrator, a religious
fanatic, and a formerly blind reporter are just a few of the fascinating
characters in Paula Sharp's I Loved You All. Sharp's last
book, the acclaimed Crows over a Wheatfield, was the story of two
families devastated by domestic violence; this time she tells the
equally memorable tale of the right-to-life movement's impact on one
unconventional family in a small town in upstate New York. Sharp
manages to treat a controversial subject with appropriate depth without
letting I Loved You All become a political tract, and her
powers of description keep the story going until its dramatic
(September 23, 2000): "A touching depiction
of modern families and the dangers and pitfalls they face, I LOVED YOU
ALL is both compelling and haunting, while Sharp's writing is witty,
fresh, and -- at times -- dizzyingly brilliant. ... I
Loved You All is a rare compilation of compelling plot and fabulous characters
who draw readers in from the first page and keep them clinging to every
Walters, The London Sunday Times
(April 2, 2001): "Child narrators are rarely fully satisfying,
but Paula Sharp's 10-year-old Penny proves thoroughly engaging:
Shrewd as well as naive, puzzled but perceptive ... Sharp strikes a fine
balance between comedy and potential tragedy. Isabel is never
stereotyped. She is both ridiculous and dangerous, but we see --
through Penny's detached but always sympathetic eyes -- that she is also
lonely and vulnerable."
McGlone, Scotland on Sunday: "Halfway through the book, its spirited eight-year-old
narrator, Penny, does a flip in the air for the "Sheer perilous
pleasure" of it. You can capture a similar thrilling
sensation simply by reading this exuberantly hilarious story about
growing up n a bleak small town ... Sharp .. has a mordant eye for the
quirks of human nature ... It is old-fashioned storytelling at its
best. The characters are so involving--not since To Kill a
Mockingbird or the opening chapters of Jane Eyre has there
been a more acute and astute child's view of the world -- and so
engaging that they remain as if written in indelible ink on the
Times Literary Supplement: (January 26, 2001):
"Penny, whose sharp insights are mixed with childish fantasy and
fears, gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of militant
anti-abortionists ... a tale of a child lost and found, written with
tenderness and generosity."
London Times (January 24, 2001): "Paula
Sharp draws you in ... with appealing detail. telling her story
through the eyes of a child creates an ideal perspective for the
examination of a subject that has the power to raise hackles. the
combination of innocent insight and a very adult way with words is a
London Daily Telegraph
(January 27, 2001): "This crisply written, very funny
novel floats ideas without drawing conclusions. Our sympathies
sway: we admire and are enraged by Isabel for her obstinacy and
otherworldly patience, and we pity her."
The Seattle Times
(September 3, 2000):
"Paula Sharp borrows a line from Gwendolyn Brooks' bittersweet and
unblinking abortion poem called "the mother" for the title of
her new novel. In I Loved You All, Sharp promptly
repays the loan and adds substantial interest. ... The characters are
intriguing down to the last man, woman and child. There is pathos,
sly wit and dramatic surprise. ... this story is a book-discussion
The Charlotte Observer (Oct. 24, 2000)
In I Loved You All, Paula Sharp gives fair time to her
right-to-lifer, Isabel Flood. We can admire her persistence at
picketing the high school where Gwendolyn Brooks' bittersweet poem about
abortion is being taught, even the pointless grandeur of her raid on the
school library... That we can sympathize at all with such a judgmental
woman is a tribute to the author. Sharp does a splendid job of
creating characters who are recognizable and original."
Smith, The Madison Isthmus
(August 25, 2000):
"To call I Loved You All a book about abortion is to
diminish the scope of this beautifully written novel. While
right-to-life activism in a small New York town forms much of the
backdrop for the book's plot, it is above all a novel about family,
children's need for belonging, and the chasm that separates the world of
adults from that of children ... Sharp's greatest strengths are her rich
character development and brisk, poetic use of imagery ... Paula Sharp
has crafted a fine book, unpredictable and sensitively
Cline, The Iowa City Icon (August 24, 2000):
"Sharp's impressive handling of an entire ensemble of quirky
characters would be enough to set I Loved You All apart from many
novels filled with stock characters wading through predictable
territory. But Sharp ups the ante by building her story around the
issue of abortion. Isabel Flood is not merely opposed to
abortion. She is an activist who goes door to door with
anti-abortion pamphlets, pickets the public high school in opposition to
the teaching of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (from which the novel takes
its title) and stands firm in the face of opposition from pro-choice
opponents and more moderate pro-lifers. Some readers have been
quick to conclude that I Loved You All is a book about
abortion, and many have suggested that it is a pro-choice novel that
points out the folly of the radical pro-life position. But Sharp
disputes these claims, arguing that the book is a comic novel that is
fundamentally about her characters. "I never sit down to
write a novel until I have really good characters, and Isabel was my
favorite character," Sharp said... And in that light, the book is
an unqualified success. Each of Sharp's characters is a carefully
drawn, three-dimensional individual full of passions and faults with
which they must contend on a day-to-day basis... Almost without
exception, Sharp succeeds in creating characters with whom we may feel a
sense of connection that reaches beyond our views about any specific
2000): "In I Loved You All, novelist Paula Sharp
... gives the characters' actions an honest logic ... To Penny, Isabel
is peculiar ... Her descriptions of Isabel's maneuvers and Mahalia's
response are easy for the adult reader to interpret and yet Sharp can be
subtle in her stinging wit ... Sharp does a splendid job of
creating characters who are recognizable as types and original in their
2000): "Sharp’s novel, her fifth book (e.g.,
Crows over a Wheatfield), is well worth reading; the author intertwines
the themes of family love, alcoholism, abortion, betrayal, and the power
of a fanatically held belief. Marguerite Daigle, a widow struggling to
raise two daughter in Stein, NY, is drinking too much. When her brother
and her finance, David, whisk her away for a drying out treatment,
16-year-old Mahalia and eight-year-old Penny are left in the care of
Isabel Flood, a local babysitter who is a fanatic right-to-lifer. Penny,
the narrator, later recalls the events, including the effect of abortion
on the fragile families of Isabel’s church, the near-breakup of the
Daigle family when Mahalia wholeheartedly attaches herself to Isabel ,
and the family reconciliation when Marguerite returns, cured and married
to David. Meanwhile, Isabel’s fanatical protests, including the
destruction of the high school library, lead to a prison sentence. All
these events, as related by a hyperactive child, take on a slightly
comic aspect. Although the narrator offers some comments from her adult
perspective, the reader is well aware that these issues are still major
concerns in our society. Recommended for all public libraries."
Cheryl L. Conway, Univ. of Arkansas Library, Fayetteville.
Templeton, Talking Pictures
(September 29, 2000): "Crows over a Wheatfield, set
in the strange world of the family court system, became a bestseller in
1996, in part owning to its author's knack for taking a serious,
potentially morose subject (domestic violence) and cramming it with
unexpected pockets of laugh-out-loud humor. Now, with I Loved You All,
Sharp pulls off an even trickier stunt, producing a riveting comedy
about abortion. " (For more on Talking
Pictures, visit metroactive.com.)
Interview with Paula Sharp about
Loved YOU ALL
down to read interview)
I Loved You All
has been described as a humorous
novel about the politics of abortion.
What inspired you to write a comic novel about such a serious and
Abortion is a very divisive topic in America today, and so can surely
benefit from a little humor as well as serious inquiry into the nature
of the characters at the center of the controversy.
Do you consider yourself pro-choice, and if so, did you find it
difficult to write a novel that has a pro-lifer as a protagonist?
pro-choice, but when I choose a protagonist, I don’t look for someone
who agrees with me; I look for a good character.
never sit down to write a novel until I have a character in my
head whom I think I might enjoy following around for a year or more.
I like characters who are complicated and vivid and energetic.
The character Isabel Flood is a right-to-lifer who has dedicated
herself to her religious cause, and she acts with complete obliviousness
to worldly demands and her personal needs.
She steps into the middle of a family controversy and complicates
emotional issues with her own pressing moral concerns.
When I was working on this book, I loved Isabel Flood, because
she is so sincere, and so relentlessly herself, and because her vision
of the world is so completely her own.
As the narrator says, she’s like a self-built person, made
grain-by-grain, from thin air.
F.X. Molineaux, the narrator’s formerly blind uncle, sends
anonymous letters to Isabel Flood which he writes from the point of view
of an embryo and signs “Fetus Elegante.”
To what extent is the character F.X. the book’s authoritative
is a journalist who enjoys controversy and has a lively mind.
I don’t think of F.X. as an authoritative voice, although he is
certainly a boisterous one. For me, his purpose is that he blows through
the narrative like a hurricane whenever he appears, and he has a
continual potential for hilarity and conflict.
He’s a perfect nemesis for Isabel because she can’t make
sense of anything he does.
F.X. reminds me of many of my Louisiana uncles, who were
vivacious people who appreciated high humor and needless drama.
He is modeled in part after a Baton Rouge uncle of mine, who was
blind for many years before his vision was restored by eye
surgery in the early seventies.
When he phoned us after his surgery, like F.X. he reported that
he was sorry he could see because he had just watched television for the
first time in twelve years and had learned that the governor of
Louisiana was just as ugly as he was stupid.
Isabel Flood is always fiddling with metal puzzles she carries in her
Do they indicate that she puzzles over the world’s problems but
thinks she can solve them?
Do you think Isabel is a sympathetic character whose view of the
world is justified?
Do you think she learns in the end, and changes?
see Isabel as essentially kind, patient and well-intentioned.
Her character was inspired
in part by an adult I was close to and fond of when I was growing
Like Isabel, this person was tightly wound emotionally,
repressed, awkward socially and isolated.
Like Isabel, she tinkered with metal and wooden puzzles all the
time – the difficult three-dimensional kind that most people fail to
When she died, she had a puzzle collection that numbered in the
Isabel is someone for whom human society is puzzling – she lacks the
benefit of an upbringing among loving adults, and she has no friendships
unrelated to her religious cause. She
has difficulty anticipating and recognizing the emotions and moods of
people around her, and of her self.
For her, it takes tremendous work, considerable tinkering and
relentless perseverance, to figure out social situations to the degree
necessary to carry out her
all she experiences by the end of the novel, Isabel’s moral core does
not change, nor does her propensity for continuing to act just as she
After the novel closes, I see her as sitting in Bedford Prison,
writing letters to various right-to-life organizations, and emerging to
continue her mission.
However, she is altered in one important aspect – her heart has
Thus, while the way in which she affects the world perseveres,
internally her puzzle parts have to readjust themselves.
Q: Do you see Isabel as typifying modern right-to-lifers?
Ultimately, I did not choose a protagonist whom I saw as a “typical”
right-to-lifer. First of
all, this would be difficult, because there are many kinds of
pro-lifers, and anti-abortion sentiments arise from many disparate moral
sensibilities. In this
country, the right-to-life movement has been engendered both by the
politics of prominent Catholic Church authorities such as Cardinal O’Connor,
and by fairly recent developments in American Protestantism, such as the
Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Isabel is a devout Protestant, but she does not ally
herself consciously with Protestant right-to-life politicians or even
with the Moral Majority. Her
mission is peculiarly her own.
Did you do a lot of research on the Right-to-Life movement for this
Was it important to you to create a novel that is historically
pored over every available history and legal article on the American
right-to-life movement and abortion politics, because I think historical
verisimilitude is a necessary element of most novels, and I read every
pro-life pamphlet I could get my hands on.
However, I think a fiction writer’s most important research is
done by talking to people.
I talked to everyone I could who was pro-life, scores of people,
to obtain a richer understanding of the many possible motives, both
religious and emotional, that underlie zealous dedication to the
From the beginning, I wanted the novel’s central drama to revolve
around the tension between religion and politics.
When I started the book, I was interested in political
hierarchies in the right-to-life movement, and in depicting their effect
on individual pro-lifers. The right-to-life movement that arose in the seventies with
the Moral Majority has a complicated
structure. At the
bottom, you have the true believers, who seem principally female, who
sincerely believe abortion is wrong or sinful – this is often because
they belong to churches that embrace pro-life morality.
These people may or may not be political activists; many are
guided by people who have clout and authority, such as ministers, or
local political leaders vying for the limelight.
These leaders in turn may ally themselves with larger political
groups with a broad array of associated but logically unrelated secular
agenda (e.g., gun decontrol, opposing taxation, or advocating capital
punishment). Sincere belief in the right-to-life cause tends to melt away
at this level – the frequency of Elmer Gantrys gets a little higher.
When religious beliefs converge with political agendas in the realm of
party politics -- as in the Republican Convention, for example – you
have politicians courting the so-called religious right, and
simultaneously struggling for some kind of palatable compromise that
will get them elected – and the problem such politicians encounter is
that true religious belief does not lend itself easily to compromise.
If you believe that abortion is murder, it’s hard to imagine a
And then, alongside this structure built up of religious and
political alliances, you have the wild cards:
extremists and mavericks who derail and abet the right-to-life
movement through acts of violence.
most American political movements, the pro-life movement is multifaceted, and at times
Flood ends up betrayed by her own right-to-life community because she is
a true believer who does not really understand or care about politics,
and because she does not accurately assess the potential for violence
among some of her cohorts.
Why are the right-to-lifers’ actions in I Loved You All
directed at a high school teacher who is teaching a poem about abortion,
instead of at an abortion clinic?
Do you see the poem the pro-lifers object to, Gwendolyn Brooks’s
“the mother,” as being in favor of or against abortion?
Do you see I Loved You All as advocating a particular
viewpoint about abortion?
central preoccupation of this novel is language itself
– at its heart are F.X. Molineaux, the journalist, who never shuts
up, who loves words and language, and Isabel Flood, who corrects the
8-year-old Penny whenever she uses non-dictionary words such as “discombobulated.”
I chose to make Brooks’ poem the center of all action in this
book in part because I liked the idea of a single poem stirring up so
much trouble, and in part because I think that censorship is at the
heart of the pro-life movement engendered by Moral Majority politics.
I was also enticed by the power of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem itself.
When “the mother” first came out in 1945, it was highly
controversial, and here we are in 2000, and it’s still controversial
– how many poems could that be said of?
A curious fact about “the mother” is that people wildly
disagree over whether it’s pro-abortion or anti-abortion.
I’ve heard the poem condemned as apologizing for abortion, and
conversely, as unfairly presuming feelings of guilt in people who have
had abortions. I think readers are unsure what Brooks’s poem advocates
because the poem was never intended to be a piece of advocacy -- it is
an attempt to express the nuances of feeling in a particular speaker,
who both believes abortion is not wrong and fears that it may be wrong
and so tries to justify having had abortions.
The poem captures one voice with unusual complexity and dexterity
and feeling – a feat that only a grand dame of American letters like
Gwendolyn Brooks could pull off.
Without Brooks’ literary
bravery, we would have been deprived of brilliant portraits of the most
pressing conflicts of our times, such as “We Real Cool,” which was
also censored, and her long poem “Riot” about the Chicago riots, and
“the mother”. To me,
“the mother” is emblematic of what happens to literature that
embraces political controversy or prohibited subject matter; people have
the tendency to forget that it’s literature, and to attack it.
Did you encounter any special difficulty in adopting your narrator, who
is a hyperactive, ungovernable eight-year-old?
What struggles did you have in mixing a child’s perspective
with the narrator’s older voice?
I see I Loved You All as
a comic novel whose purpose is to elucidate and entertain.
While I don’t think there could be any doubt in most readers’
minds that the author is pro-choice, my purpose in writing the novel
wasn’t to persuade anyone to adopt a given viewpoint; it was instead
to write a lively story that contains vivid characters
who seem to breathe real air, who broadcast their feelings and
speak their minds. Even so,
I knew as I wrote the novel that I couldn’t prevent some readers from
reacting to the story’s content and interpreting it as pushing one
viewpoint or another. Readers are entitled to their reactions --
if you write a book that touches on controversial contemporary
issues, you have to accept all kinds of responses, because this is part
of the territory.
an adult novel with a child narrator is extremely difficult.
Even the best adult books with child narrators often end up being
treated as if they’re children’s books – this happens with To
Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn, for example.
When you have a child narrator, the essential challenge is to
communicate sophisticated ideas beyond the understanding of the
The central problem of first person narrative is exacerbated –
how do you get information to the reader over the head of the narrator?
Do you just resort to the hackneyed device of having her suddenly
discover her antagonist’s diary under the sofa cushions?
When I first set out to write this novel, it descended quickly into an
amusing story about childhood. I
threw it away after the first 150 pages, and rewrote it as a third
person novel focusing initially on Mr. Coker, a reclusive organic farmer
and right-to-lifer who lives with his daughter Lucy on the edge
of Stein. I came up with a grim, dark narrative bent on enticing any
sensible reader to shoot himself in the head.
This story eventually wrote itself into a hole by culminating in
the death of a child.
I then started over with Penny again, from scratch.
I longed to use a child narrator because I loved the irony of
having the person closest to being unborn, who has no pressing moral
viewpoint on abortion, commenting on the actions of adults preoccupied
with the rights of (unborn) children.
Only a child could attend a church service and proclaim
that the minister was a man “who could make grown-ups jump from
their seats and caterwaul. They
were crazy, all of them.”
I also knew that it was possible to write a sophisticated story told
from a child’s viewpoint – to succeed the writer has to move up
close and then back off like a camera lens, speaking now with the
mystification of adulthood and then with the mystification of a child.
It’s difficult to do this seamlessly, however.
Most of my rewriting of the novel centered on the transitions
between sophisticated voices (summaries of F.X.’s commentaries, for
example) and Penny’s. Once
I had Penny in place as a narrator, I enjoyed her in a way that would
have been unlikely with someone older – her uncontrollable exuberance
and bouts of hilarity gave an energy to the novel which would have been
harder to muster up with an adult narrator.
How long have you been writing, and what made you want to become a
published my first story when I was in my twenties, about fifteen years
I Loved You All is my fifth book of fiction and my fourth
I remember wanting to be a writer when I was in second grade.
I have no idea why I developed this plan; I did not know anyone
else who had ever wanted to be a writer.
I loved books, the feel of words in my mouth,
the sounds of foreign languages, the ribald stories of my
Now that I’m a parent myself, I think that artistic talent in
children is nothing more or less than a love of something -- children’s
talents find them because children seek out what they love to do.
This is why you find children who play three instruments in a
family where no one else is musical.
If the adults around them encourage children to pursue what moves
them, they can seize the opportunity to be artists.
I was left to do what I wanted as a child.
I wrote long poems and stories when I was little, and a terrible
novel about the end of the world when I was in high school, and in
college I read Latin American and German literature and translated and
wrote poetry and fiction. Throughout my years of motherhood and
consuming jobs, I’ve always stayed on course by composing stories in
my head and compulsively taking notes for novels.
I can’t imagine life without stories.
I think I would evaporate if I stopped writing.
paperback edition of I Loved You All also includes a
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