If I told you the quick plot summary of Tina Goes to Heaven, by Lois Ann Abraham, you might visualize a familiar movie reel of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories, and then you might yawn and ask me what else I was reading. But you’d have it wrong, and I’d have done you a grave disservice. If I told you the quick plot summary of Tina Goes to Heaven, by Lois Ann Abraham, you might visualize a familiar movie reel of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories, and then you might yawn and ask me what else I was reading. But you’d have it wrong, and I’d have done you a grave disservice.
Tina Goes to Heaven may be about a bad-luck sex worker who escapes her vicious pimp for the quiet joy of a small, useful life. But this odd, loving, little gem of a book sidesteps every genre groove and narrative expectation, delivering a story with so much heart that by the end the pleasure is almost hard to contain. Mine, in fact, slipped right out of my eyes and down my cheeks.
Story audiences are primed for certain beats in books and films. If our heroine outruns a villain, that dastardly criminal will eventually show up and, after a few false leads, will bore us with an exhausting bloody showdown. If our heroine falls in love, the couple will tango through obligatory denials, misunderstandings, declarations, and sexual culminations until at the last moment, they talk truth, marry, and have no more story to tell.
We know these beats instinctively, rhythmically, like we know breath. We expect them and yet we dread them too, because so much story is generated from an accepted template, hitting its requisite beats yet too often failing to deliver the humanity and relatability we crave.
But what if an author sidesteps the conventions of romance and chase? What if characters fall in love, and pursuit stays tense, but the sequence and emphasis vary from conventional rhythms? Is the book unpalatable? Perhaps. But in Tina Goes to Heaven, under the deft, sure pen of author Abraham, familiar tropes of an orphan finding a home and lonely souls finding love, this book is a gift.
Of the characters, I can say I love these people. I know them, I am them. At times, my immense empathy for Tina is that of a mother watching a child’s struggle. Other times, I am Tina, adrift and miscast in a world that might never make room for me. Then there is the Tina who teaches me, who takes my breath away with her resilience and moxie. Her commitment to survival dazzles me and makes me question whether I would have the strength and purpose to push through adversity, absorb shame, and learn and enthuse my way into a new life.
It is no small narrative feat to create a character who breathes with so much relatable humanity. Abraham achieves this not just with Tina, who receives the bulk of the book’s time and attention, but with the supporting cast as well. How she manages to craft people so unique and dear is one of those delightfully vexing mysteries of reading. Her writing has its own unique flair that, like Tina herself, is so matter of fact and innocently observant that it dances frequently right over the line from informative to cheeky.
As a somewhat sheltered urban mother of three with a minivan and a white-collar office job, I live far from Tina’s world of foster homes and gangsters, and then of trout fishing and hash slinging, of sleeping in truck cabs and worrying about affording tomorrow’s meal. Yet the trick of good storytelling is that, as I closed Tina Goes to Heaven and absorbed the final profundities of Abraham’s cycle-of-life closure, I felt closer to this fictional world than to my own neighbors.
In Tina Goes to Heaven, Abraham has done what great writers do: melted situation, location, character, emotion, voice, and worldview to create a thoroughly unique reading experience. Through small lives and brief moments, she has created characters and story with the power to make their mark across years.