Book Review – Under the Whispering Door

Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.

I was introduced to TJ Klune’s writing earlier this year with The House in the Cerulean Sea, which I absolutely adored. I was anxious to read his newest book, Under the Whispering Door, which just released this fall. I have so many thoughts about this book, I hardly know where to begin. First, I suppose, let me say that this was a 5-star read for me but I will acknowledge that it will definitely not be for everyone. It’s a tough book to categorize, as it’s an atypical love story between a ghost and a human, but also on a much deeper level a book about life and death, and things in between and things beyond.

Filled with irreverent humor presented with the dry wit I enjoyed so much in Cerulean Sea, Klune sets the reader on a grand adventure told through the story of Wallace Price. Wallace, to put it mildly, is a jackass. He’s a high-powered lawyer who is VERY good at his job which involves being ruthless, opinionated, and completely unattached in any way to his (ex) wife, business partners, employees or the world around him. He finds himself, annoyingly, dead at an early age from a heart attack and is taken to Charon’s Crossing Tea House (where they serve excellent tea and scones) to process this information and eventually make his way through the whispering door on the top floor of the tea house, to move on to the next stage in his journey. Along the way, though, Wallace decides he really wants a chance to live a better life and he finds himself becoming attached to the other residents of the tea house: Hugo, the ferryman, whose job is to help him move from the here to the after; Mei, the reaper, who has collected his soul (and also makes a mean scone); Nelson, Hugo’s grandfather, who is a tea shop resident and full of many life lessons to share; and Apollo, Hugo’s failed service dog, whose main goal in life is to get belly rubs and put a smile on someone’s face. By the end of the book, all of the characters had become friends to me and wormed their way into my heart.

Klune gives each of his characters a quirky, fun personality. Hugo is probably the most “normal” (whatever that means) of the group, if you’re willing to ignore the fact that he can see ghosts and works as a ferryman for the dead in between his long hours running the tea shop. Despite the fact that most of the book takes place on the grounds of the tea house itself, I found the action to be engaging and wanted to keep reading to see how Wallace would manage to navigate all the things being dead now means for him. I also appreciated the nod to Cernunnos that’s woven into the book (and reminded me a bit of Charles de Lint’s writings).

This isn’t an easy book. Beyond the lighthearted aspect of the plot of “a ghostly love story”, Klune embeds topics within the story about what it means to live a good life, what is death and what is life, and is there really something beyond the short time we’re alive here on the planet? One of my qualifications for a 5-star book is that it is one I will think about often, and one that will stick with me for years down the road. This one made the cut for both of those reasons and I’m glad I read it.

PS: Major props as well to TJ Klune for the fantastic playlist he’s put together on Spotify for the themes of this book. I enjoyed listening to that as well. (Link to the playlist can be found on his blog here, if you’re interested.)

This is book 15/24 for the Fall Into Reading challenge.

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