After having rated TJ Klune’s book The House in the Cerulean Sea as one of my favorite discoveries last year, I was greatly anticipating reading this year’s Under the Whispering Door. I ended up mostly enjoying it, but it was a bit of a struggle to do so.
Although they have different themes, the books do share certain characteristics: an initially unlikeable protagonist (although I mostly felt sorry for Linus in Cerulean, while Wallace in Door was simply an asshole); a quirky gang of main and secondary characters to surround him and serve as foils for his transformation; equally fanciful world-building; and a gay romance. I was intrigued by the subject matter—death and transition—and couldn’t wait to see how this creative author would deal with it. Unfortunately, I had to wait…and wait…and wait some more.
I almost put this book down a couple of times during the first 60 percent of it, simply because nothing much happened. Don’t get me wrong—there are events taking place, they simply don’t appreciably move the plot along, and also can’t compete with the constant, repetitive introspection of the exceedingly annoying protagonist, who protests, whines, and throws tantrums as each of them transpires.
Wallace, a successful and rather egomaniacal big-city attorney, has a blackout moment in his office, and when he wakes up, he’s at a funeral, which turns out to be his own. There are distressingly few people in attendance, none of them kindly disposed towards him, and it’s almost with relief that he notices one well-dressed and intriguing person he’s never met. Mei turns out to be his Reaper, the person who has been sent to retrieve him, now that he’s dead, and to convey him to the Ferryman to make his transition to whatever’s next. This turns out to be Hugo, owner of a tea shop on the outskirts of a small, out-of-the-way town whose inhabitants enthusiastically line up for his and Mei’s croissants and scones, oblivious to the presence of both resident and guest ghosts on the premises.The living quarters are upstairs from the shop and, on the fourth floor, there is a mysterious door in the ceiling that leads, well, somewhere else.
Wallace, however, isn’t yet willing to admit that he’s dead and it’s all over, let alone passively float through that door. He’s angry, he’s resistant, he’s all the many stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and he’s going to fight with anyone who tries to pressure him into something for which he isn’t ready.
This is a book about what it means to be alive and how to come to terms with death. I appreciated the marked lack of religious symbology and the unique ways in which Klune imagines that all this happens, but was less a fan of the repetitive mantras surrounding the subject matter. There were definitely both ahah! and touching moments throughout the story, and I did invest fairly heavily in most of the characters by book’s end, but there were some things that didn’t feel organic (the romance wasn’t there and then it was, and it was hard at times to understand why) and others that felt extraneous. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, but the irritation level at pushing through all of the preliminaries that seemed to last way too long brought the pleasure quotient down a bit.
My ultimate verdict would be to read it, but go into it knowing it’s a slow burn of a read and you will have to persist to find gratification.