TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea was the sort of whimsical, heartfelt novel that felt like an instant classic. It is perhaps no small coincidence that it’s publication coincided with the early day of Lockdown in March of 2020. What I (we?) were looking for at that time were books that provided a soft landing. The House in the Cerulean Sea offered what so little in the world could offer at that time – a sense of home and comfort. The characters were unconventional (I mean, THE Anti-christ? Gnomes and amorphous blobs? Plus, most terrifying of all, the BUREAUCRACY?) and yet, the story was familiar. Opposites attract, and in the most charming ways. Good, open minded characters convey the very best of humanity, and love triumphs over loneliness. How many of us could identify with the soul crushing weight of being kept away from people we love in 2020?
My in-person book club picked TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door for our summer book. It is about a man’s experience in the afterlife, facing the fact that as a wolfish lawyer he did not spend enough time in life pursuing things that really matter – above all, finding and embracing other people in loving ways. In his afterlife, he finds love. It had a sweetness to it, but I did not respond to the book as strongly as I had THitCS.
Yet, I had already ordered In The Lives of Puppets from the library and I had shuffled it to the bottom of the TBR pile enough times that I was out of library renewals. It was time to read it, or send it back. So, I gave it a chance. Although the book is a little longer (>400 pages) it did not feel like a long, involved read. Klune’s style is light, heartfelt; whimsical with a hefty dash of sarcasm. It’s almost like watching Adult Swim cartoons, if they were a bit more earnest.
This novel is a retelling of Pinocchio, but the twist is that the Geppetto stand-in is a robot, and his creation is a human. The premise is that hundred of years in the future sentient AI have overthrown the human race. Very few robots are able to throw off the mantle of their designation to discover their own free will. Gio, a robot of immense abilities (and one of the few in possession of a wooden heart) has created a home in the woods where he has raised his human son, Victor. They live near a scrap yard, where over the years they have rescued and rehabilitated a roomba (named Rambo) and a nurse robot named Nurse Ratched (an acronym that is a touch too clever).
As Vic nears adulthood, he begins to question the boundaries around his life. In this frame of mind, he and his robot friends make a stunning discovery in the scrap heap one day – a human-looking robot named HAP (Hysterically Angry Puppet, according to Rambo). Meeting Hap kickstarts an adventure that allows this quartet to more fully explore their own past, and eventually carve out a future.
The supporting characters are doing Grade-A supporting work here. Rambo is exactly what you might imagine a Roomba to be, if it were to have the ability to interact with you – slightly scared of its own shadow, always mid-existential crisis, easily distracted by vacuuming absolutely ANYTHING. Nurse Ratched is the quintessential tough broad with a habit of flashing excellent one-liners across her screen while deploying dead-pan (and yet, often sexually charged?) factual information. Gio is a Dumbledore-like figure, providing emotional guidance and propelling the story from the background.
The main characters (I’m including Hap here, although really he’s supporting) are a little less enjoyable, in my opinion. Victor is a human who is, understandably, confused about his place in the world. I mean, this makes complete sense – he’s being raised by robots. Aside from being human (and unnaturally gifted at creating things like wooden hearts) he doesn’t seem to have many other traits. This is like most leading characters in children’s stories – the “hero” is often a little bland, and stands out mostly by virtue of being the perspective from which we interact with other characters.
However, I preferred Victor to Hap, although I’m afraid I don’t have eloquent reasons why I didn’t quite warm to Hap. He was described over and over as a handsome, if rather vicious, machine. The romance between Victor and Hap was fine, but I found myself rooting for them only because I know that’s how books like this go. I knew where the romance would fit in and I wanted it to go there, like a missing puzzle piece.
I suppose that’s a decent means of assessing a book – rather than counting stars, let’s take the analogy of a puzzle. This book was a puzzle with all the pieces! It had an interesting enough design, slightly quirky, like a picture of cats buying sodas at the beach. But this was a 300 piece puzzle, maybe 500. At BEST 750. It was fine! You could put it together pretty quickly, and it was a satisfying enough ending. It definitely has bonus points for its treatment of queer characters / sexuality in general. Popular culture in the world of this novel consisted of movies with gay male leads and it wasn’t even a THING! Non-binary characters, a variety of sexualities, and open discussion (with reasonable boundaries for privacy) as a family norm were all welcome parts of this novel.
Something rather interesting popped up in the acknowledgements – there, Klune alludes to this novel being edited in ways that he and his sensitivity readers thought was unnecessary. It truly makes me wonder what aspects of the story were deemed “too much” for readers at this time.
All this to say – this book is worth your time, it was a generally lovely read. It won’t make my best-of list this year, maybe TJ Klune himself knew that. But if you’re on the fence, or looking for something a tad funny and sweet that isn’t too syrupy, this is a decent choice.