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.
I absolutely adored TJ Klune’s 2020 novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea, so I had very high expectations for Under the Whispering Door. While I enjoyed this novel, it doesn’t quite live up to my (admittedly super high) expectations, but it’s still a sweet, lovely read.
In Under the Whispering Door, we have a very unpleasant first encounter with lead character Wallace Price. Wallace is a powerful, wealthy partner in a powerful, wealthy law firm, and an absolutely awful person. His whole life revolves around his work, and he’s completely heartless in dealing with an employee in need.
Which makes it kind of ironic that he soon drops dead from a heart attack.
When Wallace regains awareness, he’s at his own funeral, which is attended only by his business partners and his ex-wife, none of whom have anything good to say about the dearly departed. But there’s also a stranger there — a young woman whom Wallace has never seen before, who takes charge and informs Wallace that (a) he’s dead and (b) she’s a Reaper, there to escort him to his next step on the journey.
Where they end up is at a strange little tea shop in the woods, run by a kind man named Hugo, and inhabited by Hugo’s ghost grandfather and ghost dog. The tea shop is a real place, with real (living) customers, but it also houses the door to the next world, a portal for dead souls when they’re ready to move on. It’s a lot to take in, and Wallace goes through all the stages of denial and anger and so on — but ultimately, he comes to accept that what’s happening to him is real.
The longer Wallace remains at the tea house, the more he begins to reclaim something like his own humanity, as his contact with the people of the tea house helps him to see how terrible he’s been, and to remember times in his life when he actually experienced the joy of caring and being kind.
The book deals with loss and sorrow and depression throughout, and while the overall tone is whimsical, there’s a seriousness underlying everything that keeps the story grounded even during its most fantastical or silly episodes.
I loved the characters. Hugo, the ferryman, is kind and patient and possesses endless wells of empathy. I got a huge kick out of his grandfather Nelson (and also the very good dog Apollo). Mei, the Reaper, is one character that I couldn’t quite connect with — her scenes are always entertaining, but I didn’t feel that I had a very good grasp on who she was as a person.
Wallace is a tricky one, so utterly unlikeable to start with. It’s a real achievement that the author is able to take this awful person and show his development so carefully and believably that by the end, we really do care about him and want the best for him.
The plot itself isn’t always completely logical, in my opinion — the tea house is perhaps a little too weird to actually function in the real world as it does. And where even is it, besides being in the woods? But these little quibbles don’t really matter.
Ultimately, Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about it never being too late to become a better person and about finding and seizing joy and choosing kindess wherever possible.
TJ Klune has quickly become one of my favorite authors, and I’ll read whatever he writes next! And meanwhile, I’m going to need to spend some time on his backlist.
Don’t miss Under the Whispering Door!