Wellness by Nathan Hill: book review

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Overview: Jack and Elizabeth are soulmates. Or that's how it felt when they met in their early 20s in Wicker Park. She's a directionless, wide-eyed college student, and he's an artist who secretly wants acceptance from his art school peers. Jack and Elizabeth get married, have a kid, and become middle aged people. Along the way, that fated feeling fades. Their jobs grow more tedious, their time is pulled in more directions, and there's expectations of who they're supposed to be as fully formed adults. There's also plenty of history that they haven't shared with one another, gaps in their intimate knowledge  that would explain everything. It is the reader, though, that gets the privilege of experiencing the full patchwork of who Jack and Elizabeth are now and who they were through every life stage. Overall: 5 

Characters: 5 I'm someone who loves deeply explored characters, and that's what this book is for 600 pages. Which might sound boring, but I promise you that this book is an absolute page turner. Hill stitches the story in a manner that every scene and background detail arrives at the perfect moment as we shift through time and between Jack and Elizabeth. It is so revealing and fascinating and a brilliant reminder of the immense amount of complexity that exists within everyone and how little we know even about the people we believe we know best. 

I would tell you about Jack and Elizabeth and the people that exist on the periphery of their lives and marriage, but that would ruin some of the joy of the book. I will say, though, that the most spectacular part of the characterization to me is how Hill slowly unfurls the immense amount of contradiction within people's personalities and within the stories that we smooth and mold and craft about ourselves to share with the world. Because there's so much space and time to bring these people to life, this is done gently and with so much care and exactingness. 

Plot: 5 This is the story of Jack and Elizabeth. Who knew that a pretty mundane and average Gen X marriage could be so endlessly fascinating? What Wellness is keenly aware of is that to understand the relationship at the core of the novel, we have to know the players forwards and backwards. So while we do see scenes surrounding their relationship, the greater aspect of the book is the context that comes right before or after moving into childhood or teen years or separate moments of the young adulthood that they shared with one another. This adds a heightened feeling to the scenes that unfold in the present day and have most of the forward moving plot. Despite not having a massive arc besides vaguely putting their marriage at stake, this book is a page turner. Every scene is so well constructed and fascinating that you want to finish the mini story that chapter contains and then you want to get to the next one to keep unfurling the onion layers of who these two people are. 

Writing: 5 I am in awe of Hill as a writer. His sentence level writing is fascinating, but it's the big picture stuff that really gets me. So often, authors let really long books get away from them. I'm shocked that in 600 pages, there wasn't a single chapter that felt unnecessary, and it's a truly amazing skill to be able to effectively take two people's childhood-middle age stories and chop them up and shuffle them around and reformulate them into a novel that delivers each piece of information at the time of maximum effect without ever stumbling. 

The other thing worth noting is that Hill is a researcher. I've probably never read a better researched fiction book. In my English class this semester, the professor liked to emphasize how Richard Powers knew trees backwards and forwards, and that's what made the novel so good. All the research made him feel like a genuine authority on everything he put down on paper which made the novel more believable for readers. Despite it being fiction, it's fiction that the real world shouldn't be able to poke holes in. What Powers didn't have was pages and pages of bibliography in the back of his novel. Wellness not only knows its stuff backwards and forwards on just about any topic you can imagine, it will also let you know exactly where all the obscure science and details came from. Hill read more books than I can count on my hands and toes on topics ranging from the settings (Kansas and Chicago), relationships/dating/marriage/sex, psychology, and a handful of other topics. Then there's an extensive bibliography of scientific psychology literature from a particular section of the book where Elizabeth provides citations during her spiraling. Those in-text citations lead you right back to the real stuff. All of this is so well integrated and effortless that it heightens the narrative and never gets in the way of the story. 

It feels like Hill knows his characters inside and out, and it seems to be this research that largely helps that. He's cultivated a deep knowledge of what his characters are experts in. He has scientific theories to back up his artistic musings. It's a truly fascinating reading experience. And the most remarkable thing is that for all that background and all the facts and figures, it never impinges on the story or limits where the novel gets to go or the feeling that ooze through. 

This is one of those books that I enjoyed immensely as a reader but also one that I will spend a great deal of time considering and picking apart and using to make me a better writer. It's a book I felt I was consciously learning from simply through the experience of reading. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Laura and Emma review

On Beauty review

Excavations review

The Hole We're In review


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