Wellness by Nathan Hill

I’ve made it no secret that when it comes to writer Nathan Hill, I am a fan. His debut novel, The Nix, is in my top ten all-time favorite books. When I had the privilege of meeting Hill for the first time in 2016, I told him I’d read his 600+ page tome twice, to which he responded, “The only other person I know who’s done that is my wife!” Accidental Fan Girl status activated. It took Hill 10 years to write The Nix which left me feeling nervous about the potential of another book showing up in our catalog any time soon, but after a mere 7 years, we’ve been rewarded with his new (not quite as tome-y at 597 pages) novel, Wellness.

Born in 1975, Hill’s writing exudes Gen X realness but without the cynicism that one typically thinks of when they envision the eye-roll generation (of which I am a proud member). He’s Gen X without making a big deal about it. Which, of course, only wins him Gen X points among us who were born between 1965 and 1980. The main characters, Jack and Elizabeth, meet as college students in the 1990s in a pre-gentrified area of Chicago. Each of their apartment windows acting as a display to watch the other’s life unfold. Jack, in particular, obsesses over the beautiful Elizabeth’s daily life. Who is she seeing? Where has she gone when her lights are off? Why did she cry last week? Hill, always a step ahead, points out later, after Elizabeth and Jack have been married for many years, that in the ‘90s this type of window-stalking would have generally been deemed less creepy than it would be now. In fact, Hill has a knack for these types of observations and a keen sense for observations in general. Early in the book, there is a paragraph dedicated to the description of Tupperware lids in a cabinet that I never could have expected to find so enthralling and relatable. 

The story mostly takes place in 2015 with flashbacks to the 1980s and ‘90s. Elizabeth in 2015 is the CEO of a company called Wellness that’s teetering (maybe veering) on the unethical and Jack is a dissatisfied, adjunct professor and an artist/photographer. Their son, Toby, is a smart and quirky child obsessed with Minecraft and watching people on YouTube play Minecraft. We watch these parents try to do the best they can for Toby while they (especially Elizabeth) feel like they’re failing in perpetuity. 

Writing about a marriage that’s many years past the initial, lusty, wrapping-around each other in bed, never wanting to let go, beginning is tricky. It can oftentimes seem with other writers that one character gets blamed for everything that’s wrong, the bigger picture and its players largely ignored. Or a less than hotly passionate marriage gets labeled as worthless, ignoring nuance and a more “it’s complicated” reality. But Hill isn’t that kind of writer; he’s not a sum-it-up kind of guy. He’ll spend 7 years writing a 600 page book so we can get to know every character and see how they’ve all screwed things up. And, for this, I am eternally grateful. When Elizabeth suggests their new condo have separate bedrooms, Jack is appalled and thinks of his wife as cold and maybe even moving on, at least in her mind. When they argue about something different later on, Elizabeth notices Jack being calculatingly unemotional to shine a spotlight on Elizabeth’s rising emotions: “It’s a classic husband maneuver, meeting his wife’s rising emotion with the appearance of cold rationality and logic, the underlying implication being that all her of hysterical female agitation is preventing her her from thinking straight.” (Did I dogear this page*? Perhaps.) 

Hill ensures we get to know the cadence and language of Jack and Elizabeth’s marriage. But, it’s not all middle-aged, bottom-of-the bell shaped curve, quips and arguments with each other, either.  “Come with,” Jack says to Elizabeth the first time they meet in person. Has there ever been a simpler, more beautiful phrase? My best friend in Jr. High (and beyond) used this phrase all the time along with, “This is.” (As in, during a phone call, “Is Corrie there?,” “This is.”) So, when Jack says, “Come with,” to Elizabeth at that first meeting, I knew it would be love and I knew I would love them too. And, Wellness isabove alla love story. A complicated, middle-aged, what-the-fuck-are-we-doing, love story. 

The beauty and complications of love are on full display but are not limited to just people. Hill grew up in the Midwest, and even went to high school in Wichita. Perhaps because of this, he writes about the Midwest with a respect that doesn’t always come naturally to those living on a coast. (Nathan Hill currently lives in Florida.) The character of Jack grew up on a ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas, and although he desperately wants to follow in his sister’s footsteps and get out, there’s still appreciation for the beauty of the plains and no condescending “flyover” references that we in the Midwest are oh-so sick of hearing. (An important character in this novel is named Lawrence and when I was lucky enough to speak again with Hill last month, I promptly forgot to ask if my adopted hometown had anything to do with the nameknowing that he’s spent time here in Lawrence and has said how much he likes our town.)

As I stated earlier, The Nix is one of the best books I’ve read in the past ten years, and that’s where it remains. However, Wellness is now also on that list, making Nathan Hill the only author on my very official Sarah’s Top Ten Books in the Past Decade list to appear twice. And, just so you know— I read, like, a lot. And, as if you needed more proof of Wellness' worthiness... It's good enough for Oprah! 

*I would never dogear a library book!

-Sarah Mathews is the Outreach Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.