I had high hopes for this one, based on my love of The House in the Cerulean Sea. That book was so pure and good, much like a Becky Chambers novel. It was sweet and funny and romantic, with plot that moved at a perfect pace. The love story at the heart of that novel felt so true, it was impossible not to root for. Those charming children, so inventive, earned each of their character arcs. It was wholesome without being syrupy. This is the genius of T.J. Klune, who is a truly gifted author. Many of those traits are on display again here in Under the Whispering Door. Only, for me at least, they didn’t come together with quite as much ease. There’s a similar cast of characters, creating a motley family comprised of not-entirely-human entities, and a main character who finds love in an unexpected place, which requires him to loosen up and really grow in empathy in order to be ready for that love. And yet, for me, the premise never gelled into something quite as magical. Maybe it simply suffers by comparison?
The novel opens with Wallace Price, a lawyer who is ruthless in his dealings with other humans. Off the pages he suffers a heart attack and dies (on a Sunday, in his office, while working in sweats, much to his dissatisfaction). He finds himself in the in-between, and his reaper, Mei, brings him to Charon’s Crossing, a cleverly named tea shop run by Hugo. As a human, Hugo runs the tea shop, open to other humans in a remote part of the world (never specified). But Hugo is more than a human, he’s also a ferryman, meaning he helps souls make the final passage from death in this world through a door to someplace else. Hugo is well suited for the position because of his empathy, and his own experiences with death. In fact, the tea shop is actually the home of his grandfather, Nelson, whose ghost remains. Nelson doesn’t want to walk through that door until he knows Hugo will be well cared for.
We get only glimpses of Wallace in life, but it’s clear that he was not used to close relationships of any kind. His ex-wife and business partners, the sole attendants at his funeral, seem put off by having to attend. Hugo, Mei and Nelson all seem universally convinced that he’s an asshole for about the first 45 minutes they spend with him, but soon enough they’re sharing stories of their family, and you can guess what happens next. In a story like this, it’s not necessarily WHAT happens but how they get there that makes it enjoyable to read. And Klune does weave deep subjects, like death and grief, with levity (slobbering ghost dogs, opportunistic “ghost” hunters, unexpected Managers). However, something about this felt TOO pat for me. Hugo is literally the most empathetic human alive, his only “fault” being that he sometimes suffers from panic attacks. The love story at the heart of the novel is charming but also doesn’t make much sense.
This is a story that is largely about death, and so content warnings apply. Everything is handled gently, but there are mentions of the death of a child, suicide, and death generally. If you’re not in a phase of grief that allows you to embrace imagining so much life after death, save this one for another time.
I’m glad I read this novel – and I’ll continue to read what TJ Klune puts out for adults, because I love his particular voice. This one wasn’t as huge a hit for me, but it was worth an afternoon of reading.