The cover is bright blue with black type with a yellow drop shadow. In the center is a large organ triangle, with a man and woman standing at the center, their backs to us, and their arms around each other.
Credit: Courtesy Knopf

On a bone-chilling night in 1993, Elizabeth Augustine stands in a cramped Ukrainian Village venue sipping cheap beer, counting down the seconds until her date with a boy she has a razor-thin connection with can finally end. 

As the aforementioned man, with middle-parted hair and John Lennon glasses drones on—because she may like music, but she doesn’t know good music—Elizabeth spots Jack Baker: the tattooed photographer she’s been watching from the shadows of her apartment window. 

Across a gap that separates their Wicker Park apartments by inches, Jack has watched her too, creating a narrative of the woman he thinks eats cold cereal after bad dates and bobs to classical tunes. 

The young pair, captivated by a fairy tale spun in a delusional way only first-time lovers can perfect, are united forever by an outstretched hand and two words: “Come with.”  

Thus begins Nathan Hill’s newest book, Wellness, a 600-plus-page saga following a couple over 20 years, from their early days in Wicker Park to finding their “forever home” in the fictional suburb of Park Shore. As the dynamic of their relationship unfurls, Jack and Elizabeth become incongruent pieces of a once-familiar puzzle.

Authors on Tap: Nathan Hill and Javier Ramirez
Fri 9/29 7 PM, Exile in Bookville, 410 S. Michigan, 10th Fl., free, registration required

“This book is about small, individual changes leading to large-scale change and how the stories we tell about a place or person can calcify into air,” Hill said. “It made sense to set this book in Wicker Park because the thing that’s happened to that neighborhood is happening to my couple. They’re both changing and, 20 years after they met each other, they and the neighborhood are unrecognizable.”

Wellness is a “love story that moves forwards and backward simultaneously,” Hill said. 

When the narrative focuses on Jack, we witness how a rural town in Kansas shaped an ill, lonely boy into an anxious man. In a delightfully written section exploring Elizabeth’s ancestors, we note how a lineage of puissant, ignorant men shaped a perfectionist clinging to the thrill of individuality and mystery. 

“That’s how we get to know our partners and friends,” Hill said. “We spend our time with them, go on dates, and live with them. But we also meet their parents, see where they grew up, and hear their stories. In that way, we achieve a synthesis and understand the person.”

As Jack and Elizabeth’s stories oscillate through time, Hill “peels back the onion” to explain why the couple might find themselves at an orgy, dump their finances into an impossible home, wear tracking wristbands to repair their stagnant sex life, or search for the cure to an irremediable love. 

“When you’re in your 20s, it feels like the world is your oyster and there are all these possibilities,” Hill said. “Exploring the dynamic of aging, there are two ways to respond to it. You can mourn for it, or you can celebrate it. As with most things, it’s really about the story you tell yourself, and these characters are trapped in bad stories.”

Like the book’s structure, Hill’s writing process also swung like a pendulum. 

The book’s opening scene takes inspiration from a short story Hill wrote two decades ago in the dead of winter while attending graduate school in New York City. He aimed to capture the clingy nature of two lonely people searching for warmth on the city’s coldest days.

Hill, a “nerdy, artsy kid,” and native Iowan who hopped around rural and suburban neighborhoods in the midwest, dreamt of one day landing in Chicago. The longing his characters have for something new is “basically me when I was 19,” Hill said. Today, he lives in Naples, Florida.

In this color headshot, the author is seen from the shoulders up. He has short brown hair and a slight smile. He wears a black button-up shirt.
Author Nathan Hill
Credit: Erik Kellar

Initially, Hill thought his short story was “fabulously romantic.” Twenty years and a decade-long marriage later, he realized “those people aren’t romantic, they’re idiots.” They were in love with an illusion.

So he warped the story, instead imagining how that couple would change when they grew up. He fueled his concerns and doubts about the world into his characters and asked, “What would happen to them 20 years later when the world got so strange?”

Beginning around 2002, Hill would travel to Chicago with his wife in the summer while she played in the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. For 15 years, he traversed the city’s streets, shopping at Quimby’s Bookstore and Myopic Books and dining at Lula Cafe. Those years created the setting and the theme of loss for the story. 

“It was interesting seeing it year after year change slowly,” Hill said. “I’d come back one summer and my favorite restaurant was now something else. I’d come back the next summer and something had turned into a Bank of America.”

At the center of that new narrative was a place called Wellness, a placebo company that asks if the mind is as effective as medicine if a person believes deeply enough. It was inspired by a joke to include a character “whose job was to create the bullshit stories they use to sell supplements,” Hill said. 

“So much of the book is about delusion and figuring out what’s real,” Hill said. “The placebo effect is the sensation of having a physical response to symbolic cues. It’s the body’s response to meaning. When you think of it that way, a novel, a great movie, or a marriage can be a placebo. I realized it was fantastic thematically, consistent, and also pretty funny.”

Hill kept his thoughts organized on a cork board decorated with note cards. He wrote his characters’ past and present simultaneously, bouncing between outlines until he had a final order in mind. The process was a “headache producer.” “But I’m really happy with the final product and how it turned out,” Hill said. 

Wellness is a love letter to a myriad of themes. 

Readers who remember Earwax, Swank Frank, and bottomless coffee at Urbus Orbis might call the book an intimate detailing of a forgotten Wicker Park. Those who yearn for long conversations, cheap beer, and late-night shows might call it an ode to youth and freedom.

Wellness reminisces about crunchy dial-up computers and a world before social media existed. It also explores new concepts, like patented social media algorithms and what it means to manifest your dreams. 

It is a jammed-pack book that ebbs and flows through time with answers, questions, thoughts, and theories, and uses a couple as lost as all of us to navigate through the scary terrain of life.

Wellness by Nathan Hill
Knopf, hardcover, 624 pp., $30,

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