The title of I Loved You All comes from the final line of the epigraph, Gwendolyn Brooks’s ambiguous poem about abortion, “the mother.” While author Paula Sharp takes a strong stand against pro-life extremism, her narrative focuses on the richness of family love and its capacity for forgiveness.
Penny is the adult narrator reminiscing about her eight-year-old self. Young Penny is hyperactive, shockingly adventurous, and constantly in trouble that ranges from minor scrapes in school to a truly dangerous escapade as a stowaway in a stranger’s car. But then, the whole family is a bit off-center. Marguerite, a widow, is an alcoholic, but a wise and caring mother. She is rescued by her lover David who takes her to a clinic and then on a long trek on the Appalachian Trail to remove her from temptation. Teenage Mahalia, rebelling against her mother, attaches herself to Isabel Flood, the religious fanatic involved in book censorship and gruesome displays of anti-abortion material. Marguerite’s brother F.X. (Francis Xavier) is a wickedly perceptive ex-reporter, fired for inventing facts.
So rich is the author’s description that there appear to be no minor characters. Each stands out as an individual, including the poker-playing school principal Sister Geraldine, and the wacky members of Isabel’s religious sect who, along with F.X., provide much of the dark humor of the novel.
If there are coincidences—the operation that restores F.X.’s sight, Marguerite’s remarkable transformation, Penny’s appearances in improbable places so as to advance the plot—they are hardly noticeable in the sheer exuberance of the story that concludes with the family reconciliation and Mahalia’s return “to our loving darkness . . . back into our electrified welcoming chaos.”