Wellness is an epic, ambitious novel about marriage, family dynamics, and the preoccupation of modern society with scientific solutions. It’s Nathan Hill’s second novel. I still haven’t read his first, The Nix. I listened to the audiobook version of Wellness.
Wellness came highly recommended, acclaimed by NPR, The Atlantic, and an Oprah’s Book Club selection. For me, these aren’t necessarily great omens. Just as I’m skeptical of films that win lots of Academy Awards, I’m a little hesitant to embrace what the literary and popular entertainment luminaries are currently touting. However, in this case I found the praise mostly justified, though with a few reservations.
The novel traces the relationship between Jack and Elizabeth, a couple who meet in Chicago while living across from each other in neighboring buildings. The opening, where we learn how the two are secretly spying on each other through their windows, is well written but felt a bit too much like how a couple would meet in a rom-com. It made me worry that the whole book was going to be cheesy and sentimental, which, fortunately, wasn’t the case. I suppose Hill chose this cute meeting as a way to contrast the couple’s later disillusionment.
Wellness moves back and forth in time, a style that is hardly unusual for today. In fact, telling a story in a traditional linear fashion is practically an anomaly now in novels as well as television and movies. For reference, Wellness uses a similar structure to the popular TV show This Is Us. While this kind of time-jumping technique is probably overused today, I think it’s actually suitable here, letting us see how Jack and Elizabeth look back at better times and wonder how everything changed so much. Flashbacks to their childhoods help to illustrate how their personalities developed.
Despite their head-over-heels meeting, the two have contrasting personalities. Jack is an artistically-inclined hopeless romantic, in contrast to the more grounded and logical Elizabeth. This difference in their personalities may be one reason the couple drifts apart over the years. Later in the book, we learn some facts that call into question the storybook nature of Jack and Elizabeth’s initial meeting.
The Modern Preoccupation With Wellness
The title of the book refers to the organization Elizabeth works for and eventually runs. The name Wellness (the organization in the book) is deliberately vague and generic, as the center provides unusual treatments that are not always consistent with the expectations of either patients or conventional medical protocols.
The analysis and parodying of “wellness” is what I liked best about the novel. Hill takes aim at the educated middle class preoccupation with cutting edge research on health, parenting, relationships, and other lifestyle-related topics. Elizabeth, for example, reads countless studies on parenting to make sure she is giving her son Toby the very best care. This becomes a bit neurotic as she has to continually second-guess herself as she finds later studies contradicting earlier ones. This is an easy trap to fall into, not only regarding parenting but also all health (mental health as well as physical) issues as we are bombarded with often contradictory information every day.
I haven’t checked if every study quoted in Wellness is real. However, some actual, popular research is included, such as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which allegedly proved that children who exhibit self control at a young age are more successful later in life. In the novel, Elizabeth imposes this experiment on her young son, only to read later that the study was debunked, making her feel guilty. I found the actual UCLA study that disavows the predictive powers of the original study. The failure to replicate the results of studies is actually a long-standing problem in the sciences.
Elizabeth is a character caught right in the middle of the crisis in faith of modern science, medicine, and mental health. She becomes obsessed with the placebo effect, the ability of inactive substances to create significant improvements in patients. This becomes a central part of her Wellness institute. Elizabeth, and readers, are confronted with ethical issues regarding the placebo effect -for example, is it right to give people placebos without telling them? Wellness doesn’t provide definitive answers to this kind of question, but gives us much to ponder.
Some of the book’s most insightful and funny scenes involve Elizabeth and Jack’s encounters with others navigating their way through the confusing contemporary world of conflicting subcultures and ideologies. Elizabeth meets a fellow parent named Brandy (Brandi? As a listener, I may not always get the spelling of names right), who is sort of a caricature of people who follow the new age “law of attraction” philosophy.
Jack and Elizabeth also run into a couple who are part of a polygamist group. They decide to attend an “orgy” in a desperate attempt to breathe new life into their marriage. While they only attend one of these events and don’t actually participate, this gets them into hot water with a local community group and jeopardizes their plans to buy a unit in a new condo in a trendy neighborhood. These are some of the complexities of modern middle class life the book illuminates.
I like the way Wellness juxtaposes disparate subcultures and approaches to life. Elizabeth seeks wisdom in cutting edge social scientific research. Jack experiments with his own wellness strategy, using an intrusive app that tracks his every movement. Jack’s aging father, meanwhile, takes refuge in online conspiracy theories.
Readers are led to contemplate how modern life provides people with so many contradictory worldviews that it’s a daily challenge to make sense of it all. Hill manages to satirize many of these viewpoints while still showing sympathy for those who espouse them.
Wellness is a long book, around 600 pages. I believe the audiobook is around 18 hours. Certain sections could certainly have been shortened. The entire section describing how Elizabeth’s ancestors made their fortune was almost like a prequel to the novel as it immersed us in the lives of characters who had nothing to do with the main story.
Giving us background on how Elizabeth and Jack’s family to help us understand them is fine. I didn’t even mind the flashbacks and moving back and forth between past and present. I just think we could have used less detail, especially when it comes to the long history of the Augustines (Elizabeth’s family).
Another section that was a bit excessive was the detailed description of Facebook’s algorithm and how it leads Jack’s father down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. The algorithms in question were from the early days of Facebook. Even much of this is speculative, as we are reminded that algorithms of tech giants like Google and Facebook are closely guarded secrets. So the intricate description of how this algorithm may have influenced certain people was a bit longwinded. Hill seems to be an author who gets immersed in a topic and can’t help but go on at length about it.
Despite these quibbles, I recommend Wellness as one of the more interesting and thoughtful novels I’ve read lately. At worst, some chapters meander away from the main story. This tends to happen in long books. Overall, it’s an enjoyable, original, and insightful exploration on how people today navigate their way through the complexities of society, relationships, and conflicting belief systems.
A Note About the Audiobook Narration
I listened to Wellness in audio format, narrated by Ari Fliakos. With audiobooks, the narrator plays a crucial role. I found the narration here a little distracting. Fliakos tries too hard at times to emphasize the pathos and humor of the story.
One of the main things that distinguishes books from television or film is that the reader is free to interpret the words. Naturally, when it comes to audiobooks, the narrator is performing so it’s not exactly like reading a print book. However, unless they are acting out characters’ in dialogue, I feel the reading should be more neutral.
Fliakos mostly does an admirable job acting out the characters’ voices. I just wish he was a little lower key with the narration (as opposed to dialogue). For example, there were several section where his voice got almost cartoonishly high pitched to emphasize the humor of the scene. This is likely a matter of personal preference, but I prefer more subdued narration that allows me the space to decide if something is funny. This issue with the narrator wasn’t extreme; he only did this every so often. But you may want to consider this if you’re wondering whether to read or listen to the book.