I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Under the Whispering Door by T. J. Klune from Macmillan. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace refuses to believe that he’s dead, but when a Reaper comes to collect him at his funeral, he has to face the truth. The Reaper takes him to, of all places, a tea shop, where Hugo, the ferryman for the dead, will help him move on. Once there, Wallace begins to reckon with the person he was. He also starts to realize that here, in this pit stop on his journey to the afterlife, he’s making real friends for the first time. But with time running out, Wallace knows he has to face who he used to be—and who he is becoming—before it’s too late.
Last year, Klune’s previous novel The House in the Cerulean Sea very nearly made it to my top spot on my list of favorite books, so I had high expectations for this one. And while I didn’t giddily fall head over heels for this one like I did for Cerulean, this is still a fantastic book.
The characters are great, not that I’m surprised. Wallace, our protagonist, starts out as such a selfish jerk but once he finds genuinely kind people, he learns and grows and becomes better. I think that his development could have been explored a tiny bit more, but overall it was a joy to read. (Another element I would have liked to know more about is the Manager, but considering how things worked out, I’m not going to complain.)
Hugo, our other main character, was absolutely wonderful and I adore him. Nelson and Apollo were hilarious, but honestly Mei might be my favorite. She’s spunky and wild, but also so loving. Or maybe Hugo is my favorite. Or Nelson. Or Apollo. Or Mei…
Anyway, before I go in a loop indefinitely, I’ll move on. Something else I loved about this book was what it says about life—you can have all the professional success in the world, but human connection is what gives life meaning. It reminds me of the overall theme of The Good Place (which I feel like I mention a lot, but it’s so so good). There’s also a bit of Pushing Daisies in here too.
And like The Good Place, this book explores the concept of death and the afterlife quite a lot, so there’s definitely a slightly melancholy tone to it. There are also a few mentions of troubling deaths: from sickness, from violence, from suicide. Klune does a good job of presenting these scenes with care, and nothing is graphic. But these are tough subjects, and I wanted to at least mention them.
Ultimately, though, Klune argues in this novel that the universe is gentler than it might seem here on earth. Death isn’t romanticized in this book, nor is life; they’re simply presented as the result of each other, and there are positives and negatives to both, in a way. If I had to describe this book in one word (which I obviously haven’t, since this review is still going), I’d say it’s “hopeful.”
In the end, Under the Whispering Door is a thoughtful, beautiful novel. Though it doesn’t always have the most elevated writing, and the dialogue is a little imperfect to me at times, it tells a great story, and it tells it well. The characters are dynamic and layered, the love story between Wallace and Hugo is really sweet, and the themes about life are uplifting, a little melancholy, and touching. This is a quietly powerful book with diverse characters, gentle magic, and a wholesome but intelligent core message.
Overall rating: 9/10
Under the Whispering Door will be published on September 21st 2021, and believe me, I will be buying a physical copy that day!
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