#IMWAYR: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Update (4/2/2022): I typically participate in blogging groups that review kids’ books, but sometimes, I do end up reading adult books like this one. In the past, I have typically labeled those books as MG or YA when I review them, primarily because I still want my typically blogging audiences to see them! However, this has become confusing, so I have decided to re-label these books as adult books, while leaving the reviews in their original format. Thank you for your consideration!
Before I dive in, I want to mention that I just read an article for a class that I think literally every human being (or at least every American) needs to read. If you've heard of The 1619 Project, the initiative led by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times to reframe American history through a lens of slavery and the work of Black Americans to actually live up to the ideals of freedom that our country is supposed to be based on (side note: this initiative spawned the gorgeous picture book Born on the Water that I reviewed just a few weeks ago!), this is Hannah-Jones's own article from the special issue of The New York Times Magazine that kickstarted this initiative. The article is "America Wasn't a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One," and I cannot emphasize enough that you need to read this—skip my review if you're short on time, and just read that article, because even if you think you know a lot about antiracism, I imagine this will still be eye-opening for you.
Also, on a lighter note, there was also a fascinating article that appeared in my news feed from The New Yorker about the author of Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, and it's definitely worth a read as well—you can view it here.
Now for the review—today, I'm reviewing Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune. This is technically an adult book, but I'm basically pretending it's YA because I did that with Klune's last book, The House in the Cerulean Sea (which, to be fair, I actually thought was a YA book when I started it—but I can't really repeat that excuse here). I'm trying to create content, y'all, so bear with me if it's a little bit unusual! Just keep in mind that this book is not an MG book like those I sometimes review, and it contains mature content.
TJ Klune has a knack for writing books that literally everyone loves—this book was second place in the Goodreads Choice Awards for fantasy and was selected as Barnes & Noble's Speculative Fiction Book of the Year, and while I don't equate those with awards from literary organizations, they're at least indicative of what readers have been enjoying!
I read Klune's also-super-popular The House in the Cerulean Sea a few months ago, and its similar setup (mostly-contemporary story with a touch of magic, two men who fall in love, an entertaining side cast, and plenty of humor) made it a delightful comfort read with enough depth to keep me interested. But my thoughts about Under the Whispering Door are quite a bit more complicated, and I'd like to take some time to explore them. Let's start with the publisher's synopsis:
Welcome to Charon's Crossing.
The tea is hot, the scones are fresh, and the dead are just passing through.
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead.
And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.
But even in death he’s not ready to abandon the life he barely lived, so when Wallace is given one week to cross over, he sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Hilarious, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is an uplifting story about a life spent at the office and a death spent building a home.
OK, so this review is going to be pretty critical, and I have honestly debated whether or not I should even post it, because I don't want to follow in the footsteps of my previous reviews and eviscerate a book that doesn't deserve it. But I really don't like the idea of skipping this review, and potentially future reviews, so I can only ever talk about the books I like—to some extent, my role as a blogger is to provide my viewpoint and tell you when a book maybe isn't worth prioritizing, compared to the many, many other books that are probably clogging up the to-do list of the rest of your life! So I'm going to try to stay sane and considerate as I discuss what didn't work for me in this book.
But before I become critical, I do want to say that there really is a lot to love in this story, which is perhaps why its flaws are even more frustrating. So I do want to adequately discuss what's actually a lot of fun in Under the Whispering Door!
First of all, the character relationships in this book are actually quite compelling. Klune is brilliant with dialogue, creating conversations that are realistic and unique and funny and compassionate...and the way he brings characters who seem like such polar opposites together over the course of a story is wonderful to watch. You'll be rooting for these characters' relationships to develop—and you'll be rewarded when they actually do. And Klune can dig into characters when necessary—one individual in this story honestly deserves an entire book, and the way that Klune pulls us into his heart and shows us his pain and his joy is pretty much awe-inspiring.
And also, this book is not just lighthearted, but genuinely hilarious. Truly, there are lines and even entire scenes in this story that are so funny, you'll almost be on the floor with laughter. And there's a lot of them too—Klune has a knack for coming up with comically over-the-top characters who collide in all kinds of ridiculous ways (several side characters really need to rein in their romantic impulses). Humor is not something that comes naturally to some authors, but that does not seem to be an issue for Klune.
And lastly, I will say that Klune is quite good at balancing worldbuilding and detail with not drowning the audience in endless facts. The mechanics of the afterlife are quite intriguing and clever (tea shops on the way to heaven, anyone?), but they're easy to understand and fade into the background to allow the story itself to take the stage. Honestly, this book doesn't even feel like the "speculative fiction" it's been categorized as—I thought of it more as realistic fiction where one person just so happens to be dead.
Now I do want to discuss what didn't grab me so much in Under the Whispering Door. (And I'm afraid this section will be the longer one.) One thing that didn't work for me was Wallace's supposed personality shift. If Wallace had been characterized as kind at heart but distracted, with his priorities in the wrong place and no idea about how to live an enjoyable life—basically, as Linus from The House in the Cerulean Sea—then his arc would have been a lot more realistic. As it stood, though, with Wallace depicted as a ruthless and often-cruel lawyer who suddenly becomes at worst a bit snarky in the rest of the plot, it felt like Wallace was being shoved into the same arc as Linus's from The House in the Cerulean Sea, despite being a different person who needed a lot more time and work to become the character that he ends up becoming.
I also honestly wanted a bigger cast of fun characters, like we had with the six orphanage children in The House in the Cerulean Sea—Hugo definitely had some character but was more compelling than entertaining or amusing, and fellow main cast members Nelson and Mei weren't quite enough (no, Apollo the dog doesn't count, considering his relatively limited plot role). Especially since Mei's whole thing is that she's a relatively normal, functioning person who applies a bit of snark, deadpan seriousness, or humorous brandishing of knives to her day-to-day life—don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic schtick and I loved her, but her entire schtick is all about being just slightly ridiculous. (By the way, what was with all the completely-unearned-and-never-challenged compliments they were heaping on her toward the end of the story? Weird.) Nelson's definitely funny, and Wallace gains a sense of humor as well, and there are tons of scenes that are so funny you might almost start crying. But part of the fun of The House in the Cerulean Sea was having tons of interpersonal relationships that were all infused with both humor and love, and the slightly-duller cast here was a little bit sad to see.
The last thing I didn't love in Under the Whispering Door was how it actually handled death, particularly in the ending. I don't think the messages about death were particularly clear in the first place, but I would say one point that was relatively apparent was that death is not something to be feared, it is a beautiful end to life. (Which I found hard to believe, considering this book leans really hard into the idea of an afterlife that I'm not even sure I believe in, but regardless, that's the message.) And so you would think that the ending of the story might further that message about coming to terms with death. But...I'm afraid it pretty much does the opposite. I'm going to try to dance around spoilers here when I say that it completely contradicts that idea, it treats Wallace as deserving of special privileges when he isn't even an unusually good person (despite the apparent collective delusion on the part of the story's characters), and it creates a mightily-toxic situation in which the person whose responsibility in life is to help Wallace attain eternal peace actually just keeps Wallace away from said peace in order to soothe himself! (That part in particular made me a little bit fussy.) Also, I want to come back to the idea of special privileges for a moment. This book has a figure who is basically the secular equivalent of God, and characters begin to question why this character's approach to people's lives is so hands-off, and why he never intervenes to help people. (Which was not a particularly relevant point to me either, since I mostly believe that what happens in the world is a kind of random chance mixed with our own decisions, but still, I recognize that the portion of the audience with such beliefs is relatively small.) (But I still feel like the themes here are getting a little strained as is.) But as soon as Wallace gets his special privileges, I found that the story threw the question of where everyone else's are right out the window—as if I'm not supposed to care where my special privileges are, where the privileges of my family and friends and loved ones are, as long as Wallace gets his own happily-ever-after! (Which isn't even a happily-ever-after in comparison to the option he threw away, I might add.) I don't want to exaggerate too much here, since I know that death is a difficult topic to write about, but it also feels somewhat cruel of the publishing staff that brought this book to life to let all of the charm that Klune worked quite hard to embed into this story get completely lost under a message that is just so unfortunately muddled.
I must say, I've enjoyed TJ Klune's previous attempts to write stories that are comforting, escapist, a respite from the world. But the problem with this story is that it has this added veneer of claiming to be really deep and complex and rich—and then I really felt like it just sidesteps all of the depth and complexity as soon as the answers become way more difficult to provide. (Even acknowledging that there are no answers would have been better than this book's attempt to provide insufficient ones.) And all this unexplored, unresolved sadness just suffocates all of the charm and love and silliness that this book actually does bring to the table.
I've read two books recently, Himawari House and Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, that aren't outright intended to be "comfort reads" with a bit of depth—rather, their primary aim is to reckon with the real world, in all its strange, beautiful, horrifying glory. And then, thankfully, after serious contemplation on the part of the authors, the stories we end up getting prove that our complicated world is nevertheless a great one. These stories are comforting precisely because they aren't written primarily to ignore the real world—rather, they prove to us that the real world is comforting and good. I guess what I'm saying is that this book combines the idea of a comfort read and a deep read in a way that simply doesn't work, because it starts from the perspective of a comfort read and then tries to tack on deep questions that really need a lot more attention if we want to even get remotely good answers to them. But if this book had started out as a read aiming to tackle these questions, and then genuinely ended up at answers that show the humor and love and hope in this world that I know TJ Klune sees and that I know TJ Klune can depict quite well...then I think that would ultimately have made a better book than what we got here, and I'll hope that Klune will follow that path in whatever story he chooses to write next.