Skip to main content




Jack and Elizabeth’s marriage has hit the skids. The forty-something Chicago couple at the center of Nathan Hill’s ambitious and amusing new novel, WELLNESS, have suddenly discovered that their decades-long relationship is no longer humming along in the quietly happy way that it once did. The long-simmering discontent boils over soon after the pair sink their life savings into a condo in the tony suburb of Park Shore. Elizabeth decides that their new home should have dual masters. They’re already sleeping apart, she reasons. Plus, it’s a kind of insurance that will allow them to still live together if they get divorced.

“It’s our forever home,” the practically minded Elizabeth says. “Shouldn’t it accommodate all possibilities?” Jack, an artist and a romantic, is horrified.

"WELLNESS is at its most satisfying when its focus is on Jack and Elizabeth and all the 'perfectly, stupidly, dreadfully elegant' ways they make a mess of their lives."

How did Jack and Elizabeth --- once the kind of blissfully-in-love couple who believed they were fated to be together --- get to this decidedly unromantic point? In his era-jumping novel, Hill takes us through the first days of their courtship, when they were college students living in a pre-gentrified Wicker Park. Jack comes from rural Kansas. Elizabeth grew up “in the wealthy outer suburbs of the big East Coast metros.” They have fled their dysfunctional families of origin and “are both in Chicago to become orphans.”

Together, Jack and Elizabeth become “a bizarre kingdom of two,” sucking up all life has to offer in the Second City’s urban bohemia. “They see Veruca Salt at the Double Door. The Jesus Lizard at Czar Bar. Urge Overkill at Lounge Ax…. And all of them before they were famous.” They watch art movies and cult films at hole-in-the-wall theaters and take field trips to suburban malls to laugh at The Gap. Jack is feted as an up-and-coming artist.

But Jack and Elizabeth grow older. They get married, have a kid, and settle into (or settle for) jobs that aren’t as fulfilling as they might have hoped. Life unspools against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society. Wicker Park’s junkies are replaced by yuppies. The exciting promise of the early internet warps into the disinformation engine that is Facebook. Old friends have traded radical politics for a personal cult of wellness. Everything has suddenly become incredibly complicated --- from Jack’s job as an adjunct professor, where his salary is now tied to an “impact algorithm” that measures the exact value of his social media mentions, to Elizabeth’s work as a mother, which she approaches with the same scientific rigor she brings to her job at Wellness, a clinic that uses the placebo effect to cure a laundry list of ailments.

As Jack and Elizabeth try to figure out what’s gone wrong in their marriage, Hill takes us back to their childhoods. He gradually peels away each character’s many layers, allowing readers to see how they came to be the adults they are today. He also reveals the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. (Elizabeth is holding onto a big one related to the circumstances of their first meeting.) Gradually, each begins to connect the dots between their current behavior and beliefs and the often traumatic events of their past. Some of the book’s most striking passages explore the young Jack’s sad, lonely childhood in the middle of the beautiful but unnerving Kansas prairie. The windswept Flint Hills and Jack’s complicated, emotionally withholding parents come alive on the page in a way that the sections exploring Elizabeth’s childhood do not.

WELLNESS is sprawling and sometimes frustrating. Over its nearly 600 pages, it takes several detours that, while entertaining, distract from the story at the book’s heart. A lengthy section unpacks how Facebook’s algorithm worked, circa 2008-2014. Another summarizes the less-than-savory history of Elizabeth’s family, who made their fortunes in a variety of unscrupulous ways. Various supporting characters flit in and out of the novel, such as Elizabeth’s new mom group friend Brandie, who fervently believes that her thoughts can control the world around her and that “every negative thing that’s ever happened to you, you probably in some way, asked for.” There’s also Kate, a hip young tech worker who has a “properly diversified” portfolio of lovers and sees conventional marriage as “a product that fails for 75% of its users.”

Such diversions give Hill ample opportunity for pointed observations about the absurdity of modern life and people’s relentless quest for self-improvement. But WELLNESS is at its most satisfying when its focus is on Jack and Elizabeth and all the “perfectly, stupidly, dreadfully elegant” ways they make a mess of their lives.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on September 21, 2023

by Nathan Hill

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593536118
  • ISBN-13: 9780593536117