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'Wellness' is a perfect novel for our age, its profound sadness tempered with humor


In an early scene in Wellness, the new novel from Nathan Hill, married couple Jack and Elizabeth are arguing over the plans for the condominium they're designing — a dream home, one that would provide more space for them and their son, Toby, than their current cramped apartment. Jack wants cabinets in the kitchen, but Elizabeth favors open shelves. Jack demonstrates his objection by opening one of their present cabinets, which precipitates a cascade of Tupperware falling onto the floor.

"If we had open shelves, it wouldn't look like that," Elizabeth says. "It would look better. We would be better."

The last sentence is telling. Jack and Elizabeth are staring down the advent of their middle age, realizing that they're far from the people they were when they met more than 20 years ago — and they try to find deliverance in upgraded living quarters, life hacks, and new adventures, all hoping it will make them, and their marriage, better. Wellness is a stunning novel about the stories that we tell about our lives and our loves, and how we sustain relationships throughout time — it's beyond remarkable, both funny and heartbreaking, sometimes on the same page.

Jack and Elizabeth first meet in 1993 at an indie-rock show in Chicago. They've seen each other before, living in neighboring buildings; at the concert, Jack rescues Elizabeth from a date with a mansplaining hipster. Jack ends up at her apartment, "where he sleeps that night, entwined with her in her little bed, and the next night, and the next night too, and for countless nights thereafter, for the rest of the year, and the next many winters, and all the baffling time to come."

Now it's 2014, and they're still together, raising Toby in Chicago. Jack is an adjunct art professor, and Elizabeth runs "a small and decidedly humble nonprofit." Elizabeth made some money in the past while working at a research laboratory dedicated to the study of the placebo effect; she convinces Jack to spend the cash on a "forever home" in a planned condo building in a Chicago suburb.

Jack worries that Elizabeth is no longer invested in their marriage. She wants their condo to have two master bedrooms; when Jack objects, she reminds him that they already sleep apart. She tries to reassure him, telling him, "I am not abnormally unhappy," but he's still worried, and spurred by a result on a Google search for weight loss, signs up for "The System," which promises a foolproof wellness plan.

Elizabeth still thinks about her previous "unraveling," which took place six years prior, when Toby, after refusing to eat a meal, throws an epic tantrum and hits his mom on the cheek. Now, she tells Jack that she's missing something in her life: She's not bored, "just no longer seduced by the mystery of it all. Life's big hard questions — What will happen? Who will I become? — have largely been answered. And now I feel like there's this huge absence where the mystery used to be. And I guess that's really what I'm after."

Hill's novel follows the couple's attempts to reconnect during trying circumstances: Their condo is delayed, Jack's estranged conspiracy-theorist father falls ill, and an attempt to liven up their marriage by visiting a sex club backfires in a huge way. Along the way, it's revealed that the story of their initial meeting isn't quite what they've both pretended it is.

Wellness, like Hill's first novel, The Nix, spans more than 600 pages, but it somehow leaves the reader wanting even more. Hill is an immensely talented writer; he has a gift for prose that's elegant but unshowy, and his dialogue consistently rings true-to-life — the conversations between Jack and Elizabeth, particularly when the two are engaged in argument, are almost preternaturally accurate.

At the heart of Wellness is a type of longing specific to the 21st century — an emptiness that we attempt to fill with one simple lifestyle change or one revolutionary new product, despite knowing subconsciously that it probably won't make much difference. Hill knows well the effect the Internet has on us: There's one section about Jack's father, Facebook, and algorithms that is as emotionally devastating as it is knowing and profound.

And while there is profound sadness in this novel, it's tempered by Hill's sense of humor — he's one of America's funniest writers working today: At one point, he writes about a "dance music subgenre that might as well be called 'Look at Me I'm in a Club!'," which he defines as "music that you heard in the club, about the club, on the subject of being seen in the club — basically up-tempo drunken solipsism, with sporadic sexual depravity."

Wellness is a perfect novel for our age, filled with a deep awareness of the Internet-poisoned, marketing-driven engineered emptiness of modern times, but also a compassionate optimism about our ability to find and maintain love nonetheless. It's a monumental achievement: a masterpiece by an author who has, in the space of two novels, become indispensable.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.