Author: TJ Klune
Publication Date: September 21, 2021
Print Length: 384 pages
Read Date(s): September 10, 2021 – September 12, 2021
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.
Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.
***Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing a copy of the book. The review contains my honest thoughts about my reading experience.***
As I sit to begin this review, I’m honestly at a loss for words. This was one of my most anticipated reads of the year by one of my favorite authors. So, needless to say my expectations were high, and this book exceeded all of them. Nothing I say here could do it justice or truly convey how moving the experience of reading it was for me. It was an incredibly cathartic read that brought on lots of tears, which I’ll expound on more in a bit.
In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of The House in the Cerulean Sea. It tackled many of the same themes, especially regarding found family and the importance of human connection. The two main characters were also similar in some ways and experienced much the same trajectory of growth along their journey. They both started as individuals who were largely isolated and a bit stodgy and consumed by their routines/work. This changed over the course of their journeys as they opened up and developed true connections with others. So, if you liked the themes and general character progression in The House in the Cerulean Sea, you will likely enjoy them in this book, as well.
Despite the similarities between the two books, Under the Whispering Door struck a much more serious, and somewhat darker, tone. There was much less whimsy in this book, and the content was quite a bit heavier. This wasn’t surprising given the book was entirely about death and grief. However, it tackled those topics with the typical Klune wit, charm, and humor that is so much fun to read. Emotionally, the book was a bit of a roller-coaster with times I laughed out loud and others I bawled my eyes out. Klune tapped into something special here, and his way of writing about loss, grief, and the existential dread of death feels profound. He also did a fantastic job of providing good anxiety representation, including how important service animals can be to helping cope with the disorder.
It’s never enough, is it? Time. We always think we have so much of it, but when it really counts, we don’t have enough at all.Under the Whispering Door, Loc 4521
The story and plot are relatively simple, and the synopsis gave most of it away. There was some interesting world-building, and Klune came up with a creative and interesting version of the Afterlife. The draw here, though, was definitely the relationships and interactions between the characters, along with the existential musings and personal growth those interactions fostered. The characters were all well-conceptualized, and their humanity leapt off the page. They all felt real with recognizable strengths and weaknesses that contributed to the authenticity of the narrative. Musings about existential concepts can tend to get a bit abstract, but this book felt grounded while tackling these topics largely because the characters provided a rich playground in which to explore them. The romance was a fairly large, and enjoyable, element of this book, as well. Klune executed the slow-burn romance beautifully here, and I loved watching their relationship grow over time into something wonderful.
Some people lose their way, but that’s not their fault. They’re scared. My god, of course they are. How could they not be? Everyone loses their way at some point, and it’s not just because of their mistakes or the decisions they make. It’s because they’re horribly, wonderfully human. And the one thing I’ve learned about being human is that we can’t do this alone. When we’re lost, we need help to try and find our way again.Under the Whispering Door, Loc 5176
Even though the story was largely character rather than plot driven, there were still some plot/story developments that were important and beautifully executed. One that stood out the most to me was the Husk subplot. It was an excellent metaphor for how people can become isolated and lose themselves due to fear and anger. It also highlighted, very literally, how impactful human connection can be in helping people find their way out of such a difficult place. I also really enjoyed the ending of the story and how it illustrated the importance of changing a system if it is not working for all the people it is supposed to be helping.
He never thought about death until he died. And now that he’d returned, he sometimes struggled with the bigger picture, the point of it all.Under the Whispering Door, Loc 5419
On a more personal note, I felt like this book really got me. The main character and I have a lot in common, and death has been something on the forefront of my mind after my battle with cancer. The last two years have been somewhat of a struggle in that I almost feel like the person I was before the surgeries died during them, but I’m not yet sure exactly who I have turned into. This book captured that feeling of in-betweeness incredibly well, as well as the ways in which I have changed my priorities due to my experiences. It also pointed out the struggle of making sense of it all and how all-consuming thoughts of death can be after coming close to experiencing it yourself. My experience reading this book has been incredibly cathartic, and I can’t help but believe it has been beneficial in ways I haven’t even discovered yet.
Overall, this book is beautiful, but haunting, and a roller-coaster of emotions all wrapped in a heart-warming love story about the importance of taking the time to connect with each other. I recommend it to everyone without reservation, but please do keep in mind that readers sensitive to death, suicide, or grief may have a difficult time with this one. I cannot think of one negative thing to say about this book or my experience reading it. So, I gladly give it 5 out of 5 stars.