Wellness by Nathan Hill: Soulmates or placebo love

Cover image for Wellness by Nathan Hill,I was delighted when I spotted a new Nathan Hill in the schedules having thoroughly enjoyed The Nix which I’d originally spotted it in Dussmann’s, Berlin’s wonderful bookshop and arts centre, but its chunkster proportions meant I couldn’t buy it on holiday. Wellness weighs in at roughly the same length, exploring a multitude of themes through a long marriage in which one partner is incurably romantic while the other is a pragmatist.

They sit near their windows and wait. They stare across the alley, into dark apartments, and they don’t know it, but they’re staring at each other.

Jack and Elizabeth meet in Chicago while both are students: he’s a photographer, always dressed in black, taken up by a graduate student who tells him his Kansas prairie shots will get him nowhere; she’s dabbling in several majors, eventually plumping for behavioural psychology. Each is very different from the other but both are determinedly turning their backs on difficult childhoods and unloving parents. To Jack it feels like love at first sight, having been gazing at Elizabeth for quite some time; she is more pragmatic despite having returned that gaze ardently. Twenty years later, married, with a child, they’re beset by the usual worries but have their eyes fixed on an apartment in The Shipworks, a development in Chicago’s wealthy suburbs. Jack teaches at the university where he studied, his artistic work stalled. Elizabeth still works for Wellness, the institute with which she got her first student job, where her work on placebos has earned her a nest egg now sunk in the apartment. All looks set for a new phase in their lives but Jack is troubled by Elizabeth’s eagerness to have her own bedroom in their new home. While he’s clung to the heady romanticism of their early days, her feelings have been tempered by the humdrum everyday reality of childcare and domesticity.

It’s like their two decades of intimacy have equipped them for this moment, furnishing them with exactly the advanced weaponry needed to inflict maximum devastation; it’s become less of a shoot-out now, more like a regional civil war.  

Like The Nix, Wellness is a big novel in both senses of the word. At its core, it’s about belief and love but Hill uses Jack and Elizabeth’s stories to illuminate modern American society, taking well aimed swipes at all manner of things – from gentrification to faddish woolly thinking, academia to obsessive self-improvement – including a very long takedown of Facebook and its fostering of conspiracy theorists. Hill flits between Jack and Elizabeth, flashing backwards and forwards between their respective childhoods and the years they’ve been together. There’s a pleasingly rich vein of humour running through the novel as Hill spins out his story making connections and revelations along with serious points as he does so. Not quite a match for The Nix for me – the overlong and detailed social media section while illuminating had me skipping over what I already knew – but I enjoyed this sprawling novel which ends on a note of hope, at least I chose to interpret it as such.

Picador Books: London 9781035008346 624 pages Hardback

12 thoughts on “Wellness by Nathan Hill: Soulmates or placebo love”

    1. I loved The Nix, Cathy. Wellness is very good but the Facebook algorithm section is very long indeed. Hill clearly has a bee in his bonnet about it, quite understandably, but it did interrupt the novel’s flow.

  1. When I returned to work after our summer break, someone had shelved this book in the Health section 😀
    Every time I see the cover now I have a little private chuckle!

    1. Heheh That’s so funny. Once I found a copy of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (sprawling historical novel) with a yellow Biography sticker on it (but shelved on the new books shelf so nobody noticed there wasn’t any call number on the spine, only a big F for fiction).

  2. I listened to the Writers on Writing interview with him early in the new year and thought it sounded amazing. Previously the length of his work has put me off, but that interview (and your experience of it) changed my mind!

    1. My main concern was the very long exploration of social media algorithms which I think everyone should be more aware of but it did feel as if it had been dropped into the narrative. Otherwise I’d happily recommend it if you’re in the mood for a stimulating doorstopper.

  3. I spotted a finished copy of Wellness in Shakespeare and Company in Paris back in December, but like you with The Nix I didn’t fancy carrying it back from holiday, and cheekily thought I could get a free review copy once I was back (which I did); it was 22 euros as well!

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