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Wellness by Nathan Hill review – American storytelling at its era-spanning best

An immersive, multilayered portrait of a marriage, the wunderkind’s follow-up to The Nix is a work of quiet genius

When The Nix, Nathan Hill’s debut novel, hit the bookshops in 2016, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath. How could any writer produce such a multilayered, time-jumping, character-hopping, consistently funny 200,000-word tale at his first attempt? Wisely, the wunderkind has taken his time to produce the next: at 600 or so close-typed pages, Wellness is barely shorter and no less shy of leaps across time and space. An equally remarkable panorama of American life, this new novel invites the reader to sink into a deep, demanding, constantly wrong-footing story of millennial lives misdirected and decisions catastrophically made. It is American storytelling at its best. While The Nix tackled America’s lost legacy of 1960s radicalism, Wellness zeroes in on a smaller, more intimate canvas, while still tackling a few big questions. What is truth? What is love? And therefore, inevitably, what is true love?

Jack and Elizabeth could not have met in more romantic circumstances. A pair of lonely university students in Chicago, each observes the other in his/her apartment across an unlit alley. It’s 1993 and, long before dating apps, the facing windows might be analogue phone screens: as each sits in darkness watching the other, both are longing to swipe right. When the two finally collide in a local bar, it’s bound to be love at first (closeup) sight. Their “origin story” powers them speedily into marriage, then parenting and finally a downpayment on their first condo. Except that now, after 20 years together, these “soulmates” find themselves at “the bottom of life’s U-shaped curve”. And when Elizabeth designs “separate master bedrooms” for their new apartment, Jack has to confront the possibility that the temporary chill may have turned to permanent frost.

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