Book Review : Under the Whispering Door

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : Under the Whispering DoorUnder the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Published by Tor Books on September 21st 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, LGBTQ, Occult & Supernatural
Pages: 400
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Source: NetGalley

From TJ Klune, USA Today bestselling author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, comes Under the Whispering Door, a new contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.
Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop's owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.
But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.
When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, this absorbing tale of grief and hope is told with TJ Klune's signature warmth, humor, and extraordinary empathy.

When I heard that the author of the resplendent and charming The House in the Cerulean Sea had written another novel, I didn’t skip a beat requesting it on NetGalley. And Under the Whispering Door is certainly a worthy follow up to the novel that surprised me with its beautiful story. Even if doesn’t quite reach the perfection of the previous novel, Under the Whispering Door has the same unique brand of humor, touching sincerity, and heavy themes as The House in the Cerulean Sea, so it’s no surprise that I was even brought to tears by this novel. 


“Wallace Price had been accused of many things in his life, but being selfless was not one of them. He gave little thought to those around him, unless they stood in his way. And God help them if they did.”


Under the Whispering Door starts out in a similar manner to The House in the Cerulean Sea. The main character, named Wallace Price, who is undeniably unlikable, finds himself in a situation completely out of his depth and is forced to change. In Under the Whispering Door, finds himself, to his utter shock, at his own funeral. It is at his funeral, where he learns for the first time the true extent of his awful, work-obsessed life. Before too long, he meets a loveable Reaper named Mei who takes him to a tea house called, of all things, Charon’s Crossing, to meet his Ferryman who will help guide him to the next stage of his existence. Naturally, adjusting to suddenly being dead in one’s mid-thirties is a lot to process, and so is getting used to one’s new existence as a ghost. Wallace has a lot of growing to do, but luckily, he has a family of people to help him, Hugo the overly empathetic Ferryman, Mei the friendly Reaper, Nelson, Hugo’s similarly deceased grandad, and Apollo, Hugo’s deceased dog, who is earning the title of man’s best friend even in death. 


Before too long, Wallace realizes that death is really just the beginning. It takes some talking with Hugo, but not nearly enough if you ask me, for Wallace to realize the errors of his ways in his past life. I thought that Under the Whispering Door got a bit redundant during these talks and felt that Wallace’s journey was a little less earned that his counterpart in The House in the Cerulean Sea. For instance, I just believe that it would take a lot longer than a few weeks as ghost to adjust to not only one’s circumstances, but to stop being the same “asshole” that one was for most of their adult life. But Wallace doesn’t have much trouble turning from his past ways and changing into a blandly friendly ghost. Despite this quick change, Under the Whispering Door is still a uniquely pleasant book. Author T.J. Klune does what he does best again in this novel, and blends his magical sense of humor into the harder, heavier themes of death and the stages of grief. It almost feels strange to laugh aloud when reading about such sad topics, but I did often while reading this novel. 


“‘Let me know when our new guest arrives. I’ll put on my Sunday best.’

Wallace glared after him. ‘You were wearing pajamas when I got here.

‘Your observational skills are unparalleled. Good for you.'”


Another thing that Klune does especially beatifically in this novel is to develop a found family that every reader can feel like they will be welcomed into with open arms. Even when dealing with topics like suicide, murder, and loss, it is in an environment that feels like a cocoon of safety and acceptance. It doesn’t hurt that there is an effortless blend of people from all walks of life that is as unique as any of Hugo’s beloved teas. I loved that Wallace and Hugo developed romantic feelings for each other, not only because of the poetry of a ghost and a Ferryman falling in love, but because of the ease and enthusiasm with which everyone accepted this developing relationship. There was no outcry of dismay at the tea shop over a gay and interracial relationship, only some mild lamentation that Hugo was at last a taken man—which is how it should be. I also loved that all of the characters were not white, and that there was Asian representation with Mei, and black representation with Nelson and Hugo. 


Though I liked the idea of a Ferryman and a ghost falling in love, I found that it just didn’t work for me as well as the romance in The House in the Cerulean Sea . I felt that much of Wallace’s transformation was brought upon by his attraction to Hugo and less by his own self-reflection. I wonder if Wallace was capable of this same growth if it had not been for this romantic interest in Hugo. I felt that the relationship between the two sort of cheapened Wallace’s transformation, as it felt like he didn’t really earn it by his own merit. Unfortunately, though Wallace and Hugo’s relationship was cute, I didn’t really feel the sparks between them, and felt a little uncomfortable with what felt like a therapist-patient relationship. This is especially true because Wallace is in a very sensitive state and the book itself even states:


“We don’t want to cause further trauma. We have to offer kindness, because there is never a time in life or death when someone is more vulnerable.”


So maybe not a good idea to enter a romantic relationship with that person? Shouldn’t there be some kind of clause in the job description to forbid this? At the very least, it felt like a major conflict of interest for a Ferryman, who is supposed to ferry the dead through the whispering door to their next life, caught and encouraged feelings for the vulnerable ghost he is supposed to be helping who is having to reexamine his entire previous existence and come to terms with what his next might be, all way sooner than he ever suspected. And I feel like Under the Whispering Door doesn’t really deal with the irresponsibility of Hugo’s feelings for Wallace, instead focusing on Wallace feeling guilt for Hugo liking him when he’s dead and basically worrying that he has nothing to offer the other man. 


Furthermore, I never really understood why Hugo grew attracted to Wallace in the first place, as much of Hugo’s interaction with him is like therapy and Wallace repeatedly takes his initial anger out on him. This is in contrast to The House in the Cerulean Sea where main character Linus spent time with the children on his own, with the orphanage master, Arthur, simply taking a hands-off approach and when needed, lightly guiding Linus’s realization of what was truly important. Arthur and Linus were on more equal footing as adults, and though there were power issues at play, with Linus having the say to close Arthur’s orphanage  it still managed to seem healthier and more of a partnership. I just didn’t care for Wallace being dead, vulnerable, going through a huge process of grief, and Hugo sort of abandoning his duty and virtually encouraging Wallace, the entity he supposedly cares for more than other people, not to pass on.


Likewise, I can’t help but think that Hugo is also in a vulnerable state, as he can only leave Charon’s Crossing for a very short period of time and distance, so he is also pretty much incapable of meeting a living human who would understand his spiritual job or the fact that he was talking to ghosts. So both men are incredibly vulnerable, and it just seems like an unhealthy relationship between two broken people, any way you look at it. The relationship between Wallace and Hugo just wasn’t sold to me, and neither did Wallace’s practically overnight transformation to an alarmingly kind-to-a-fault ghost feel exactly earned to me.


I would’ve gladly traded in many of the long talks about not being afraid of the great beyond, which honestly bordered on what felt proselytizing at times, for more slow growth and bumps in the road on the transformation of Wallace and a much lengthier time before feelings developed between Hugo and Wallace as well. In retrospect, many of these talks feel extremely hypocritical, as Hugo even states himself to Wallace that he doesn’t want him to move on. I also didn’t care for the fact that Hugo didn’t even know a smidgeon what was beyond the whispering door that led to the unknown afterlife and was still encouraging everyone to take that leap into the great beyond. I feel that The Manager, the god-like being who oversees this whole spiritual voyage, should have provided the Ferryman with some sort of glimpse, so to speak.


“What’s a few years in the face of forever?”


My last issue with Under the Whispering Door was that I didn’t quite care for the ending. To me, the turn of events, which I won’t be stating here as to not spoil the book, cheapened the entire theme of the book, which was about healthy grieving processes, loss, letting go, and moving on. To completely avoid the destination of that journey and to instead take such an, in my mind, unmerited, detour to give the audience and characters a happier ending didn’t at all work for me.  In fact, I felt this ending almost completely missed the point of the entire novel! I still was touched by other parts of the ending, and was even brought to tears, but I felt that as a whole, Under the Whispering Door didn’t quite stick the landing.


Despite my problem with the main romance of the novel, the fact that I thought Wallace’s character growth could’ve been stronger, and that I wasn’t fan of the direction the ending of the novel went in, I think Under the Whispering Door hits very hard. The main reason I think it provides such an emotional journey is because every single reader has dealt with loss in some way. And this novel takes a hard look at all of the different ways people handle their grief at this loss differently, which isn’t always easy to read. For instance, it was definitely impossible to not think of the people and fur children I have lost while reading this novel. So, please keep in mind this heavier subject matter when reading this novel. Even with one’s own grief in his or her mind when reading it, Under the Whispering Door mostly manages to make these difficult thoughts a healing and hopeful experience. If death really meant we would all travel to Under the Whispering Door’s tea house, it would be a lot less scary for all of us. 


Book Review : Under the Whispering Door - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 14, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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