What’s new, everyone? TJ Klune (The Extraordinaries, The House in the Cerulean Sea) has just published his newest book, Under the Whispering Door. It tells the story of Wallace Price, an incredibly callous and self-absorbed lawyer who makes no effort to gain sympathy from the reader as he pitilessly lays off a paralegal in the opening chapter. Then he shuffles off this mortal coil due to a heart attack in his office, but his passage to the afterlife isn’t as simple as you might think. Instead, he finds himself at his own funeral, where a strong-willed Reaper named Mei picks him up and escorts him to Charon’s Crossing, a quirky tea shop that looks like it could tumble over at any second. Overseeing the place is Hugo Freeman, a ferryman who assists souls in transitioning to the hereafter—and who, with the help of a few companions, might be able to turn around Wallace’s outlook on life before he officially leaves our earthly plane for good.
TW: Suicide, murder, plenty of grief and existential angst
Having heaped enough praise on The House in the Cerulean Sea on my podcast, my expectations were set for Under the Whispering Door to be as endearing, contemplative, and emotionally devastating as its predecessor. And hooboy, my expectations were satisfied indeed. Now, don’t mistake them for being entirely similar books. While they’re both queer contemporary fantasies built on a foundation of sincere kindness, Under the Whispering Door tackles weighty material revolving around death, and readers need to make sure they’re ready for that before diving into it. This has been promoted as a cross between A Man Called Ove and The Good Place—an apt label for a book that treks through matters of literal life and death from the viewpoint of an odious Scrooge of a human being. His gradual transformation into someone who thinks of others before himself and approaches life—or in Wallace’s case, his spiritual microcosm within the tea shop—with empathy and generosity is a classic tale that we’ve all seen before in one form or another, but Klune skillfully prevents it from feeling derivative. Even when it mercilessly twists your heart, the execution always comes off as being authentic rather than a stab at saccharine manipulation.
Bolstering the story is the engaging and vividly drawn supporting cast, which consists of not only Hugo and Mei, but also Nelson, Hugo’s mischievous grandfather, and Apollo, Hugo’s adorable dog who was too easily distracted to pass his service dog training—the last two of whom hang around the tea shop as ghosts. The romance that blossoms between Wallace, who is bisexual, and Hugo, who is gay, is such a sublime slow-burn, reminding me of the equally lovely dynamic between Linus Baker and Arthur Parnassus in The House in the Cerulean Sea.
With The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door being the first two novels in Klune’s Unofficial Kindness Trilogy, I’m eager to read the upcoming third entry, which will be a queer retelling of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio featuring an asexual and autistic lead. Make sure you pick up Under the Whispering Door as soon as you can, because I’m seeing this turning into one of my top books of 2021 at the end of the year. The latest episode of the 2 Cents Critic podcast is covering it as well, so go tune into that if you enjoyed this review.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 95/100