Wellness by Nathan Hill review – American storytelling at its era-spanning best
When Nathan Hill’s first novel, The Nix, was released in 2016, it was met with astonishment. How could a debut author create such a complex, time-bending, character-driven story that was consistently humorous and 200,000 words long? The talented writer has wisely taken his time to release his next work, Wellness, which is just as impressive at nearly 600 pages and continues to weave through time and space. This new novel offers a remarkable portrayal of American life, immersing the reader in a challenging and unpredictable tale of misguided millennial lives and disastrous decisions. It exemplifies the best of American storytelling. While The Nix explored the consequences of 1960s radicalism in America, Wellness delves into a more intimate setting while still tackling important questions about truth, love, and true love.
Jack and Elizabeth’s initial meeting was filled with romantic energy. Two university students in Chicago, living in adjacent apartments, caught each other’s attention in the darkness of their unlit alley. This took place in 1993, before the existence of dating apps, when their facing windows could have been seen as screens on an old-fashioned phone. As they both sat in the shadows, gazing at each other, they couldn’t help but wish for a positive outcome. When the two finally encounter each other at a nearby bar, it’s inevitable that they will fall for each other at first glance. Their unique “origin story” propels them into a quick marriage, followed by parenthood and eventually the purchase of their first condo. However, now that they have spent 20 years together, these supposed “soulmates” find themselves at the lowest point of life’s U-shaped curve. As Elizabeth suggests having separate master bedrooms in their new apartment, Jack is forced to face the reality that what started as a temporary rough patch may have turned into a permanent disconnect.
However, this is not a straightforward story of a stagnant marriage like those often depicted by John Updike. Instead, both characters are surrounded by a culture of storytelling, false beliefs, and deceptive marketing, which they must confront as adults. One prevalent aspect of this post-truth era in 2014 is the obsession with health hacks, and Elizabeth has even adopted the name “Wellness” for her unremarkable health consulting business in a Chicago suburb. During her time as a post-doctoral student, she worked at her university’s Institute of Placebo Studies, where she assisted her professor in debunking popular health fads by conducting thorough, double-blind studies. And inevitably, these fads such as the SlimSkirt, Master Cleanse, and Smartshake were proven to be no more effective than a placebo.
Elizabeth has a breakthrough realization when she realizes that after the professor’s retirement, she can use reverse engineering to make Wellness offer placebo cures. However, according to the first rule of wellness, placebos should never be discussed. The ritualized narrative surrounding these harmless tablets or salt water nasal sprays is what fosters the patient’s belief in self-healing.
This is only one aspect of a story that slowly weaves together various elements to form the intricate network of myth-making that ultimately entangles Jack and Elizabeth. There are numerous truths and lies involved – from Jack’s mistaken belief (influenced by his miserable parents) that he is responsible for a tragic event in his family, to the weight of truth behind Elizabeth’s family’s fortune, which is partly built on displacing uneducated settlers and partly on selling white cotton to the KKK.
Hill is not one to falter or give in to the overwhelming number of ideas and possibilities that may come his way. His writing has a quiet brilliance that effortlessly transports the reader into various worlds, such as Jack and Elizabeth’s ill-fated night at a polyamorous sex club, Elizabeth’s grandfather’s initial confusion on the docks of Nagasaki, and Jack’s childhood experiences of self-erasure while isolated on a Kansas prairie. Each new section comes to life effortlessly, thanks to Hill’s skillful storytelling. Time plays a crucial role as the third protagonist in the novel, and without Hill’s ability to seamlessly weave it into the structure, the novel would not function as well. However, the end result is completely captivating, leaving the reader eager to turn the page and delve deeper into the story.
Do Jack and Elizabeth manage to find a new purpose in this changing America? Hopefully, they will heed Elizabeth’s professor’s final words of wisdom: “Hold onto your beliefs, but do so with humility and curiosity.”