Wellness by Nathan Hill

This is a big book in every way and one that details the state of marriage in the 21st century, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And how we sustain relationships.

Jack and Elizabeth meet at an indie-band rock concert where Jack rescues her from the bore who thinks he needs to educate her about music. They have seen each other before; they have windows in their apartments that face each other, and after this meeting they are inseparable and in love. It’s a little bit of a sicky, totally-wrapped-up-in-each-other type of love so you just know that over the 600 pages it will struggle to survive. Jack teaches and Elizabeth ends up owning a clinic called Wellness that sells placebos without ever telling the clients that is what it does.

They have a child, Toby, and for me this is where the fun starts. Elizabeth is an anxious mother and researches everything, reading all the latest papers and so I allowed myself to be lead down the path of this child is going to be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. At the age of 2 he became what Elizabeth thought was a picky eater and would only eat mac ‘n’ cheese. Research and papers suggested that food should be beautifully arranged on the plate, small amounts and encouraged to try other foods at least 20 times before they would like them. There were tantrums when Toby was jollied into trying the other foods including swiping it all onto the floor. It turns out he wasn’t a picky eater, he just thought the food looked too pretty on the plate and only ate the mac ‘n’ cheese because it looked ugly. If a photo was taken of the food so that the ‘prettiness’ was preserved, Toby would eat it all with gusto.

We also get Toby’s perceived inability to play with other children, a focus on Minecraft and temper tantrums all of which could be seen as part of a diagnosis of autism but turned out to be quite normal. The very dark side of this hyperattention to marketing is with Jack’s dad who has cancer. He is persuaded by social media not to take the usual route for treatment but to try ‘a pharmacopoeia of pills and powders and extracts and salves and elixirs . . .’

Jack wondered how many hundreds of hours, and how many thousands of dollars, and how much false hope was stashed away in this closet.


It’s the false hope. I almost wept at this point. No wonder his father used to rant on facebook abut the supposed ‘cures’. They didn’t work. (Shades of Steve Jobs here and his treatment for cancer.)

As Elizabeth and Jack’s marriage becomes strained, I loved the part about a product called ‘The System’ which measures everything including how you feel about things and then spurs you on to be an even better version of yourself(!). The measuring device is a wristband and Jack learns some difficult truths when he leaves it in Elizabeth’s bedroom and goes off to sleep on the couch. These are all funny events in an eye-rolling way as if it could never happen to us. But reader it does.

Slowly the stories that are not true are revealed, and a different truth emerges for each of them as the plot dives backwards and then forwards again. I loved the story about how Elizabeth’s family made their money. It illuminates part of why she rejected them as a younger person but then there is also the abuse from her father who is a deeply flawed individual. Jack learns that he may not have been responsible for a death in the family having been lead to believe that he was by his mother.

It’s a mess, marriage can be a mess, and there are no certainties but maybe that is what we should be relishing.

And the only thing she was certain of was this: that between ourselves and the world are a million stories, and if we don’t know which among them are true, we might as well try out those that are most humane, most generous, most beautiful, most loving.


This is a really closely observed book and would be a great one for a book club. There is a lot to discuss.

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