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With ‘Wellness,’ Nathan Hill explores our never-ending quest for self-improvement

Nathan Hill is the author of "Wellness"
Erik Kellar
Nathan Hill is the author of "Wellness"

Seven years after his debut novel spawned comparisons to John Irving and Charles Dickens, Maize High School alum Nathan Hill is back with another beautiful, smart, totally engrossing epic.

“Wellness” is the story of Jack and Elizabeth, two young people who meet amid Chicago’s underground art scene in the 1990s. They quickly fall in love and can’t imagine a life apart. So they marry, have a child, and move to suburbia, and before you know it, they don’t recognize themselves or each other.

But this is more than a love story. With razor-sharp chapters that read like interconnected short stories, Hill explores modern society’s baffling pursuit of health and happiness — detox diets,vision boards, lunch-hour yoga, the impractical allure of open shelving. Elizabeth grapples with the challenges of parenting, and Jack struggles as an adjunct professor at a university that increasingly doesn’t appreciate or even understand his art. While designing their dream home, Jack wants it to fit the way they live, while Elizabeth scans Pinterest and envisions a place that inspires them to live better.

Hill’s Kansas background is evident throughout the novel, as Jack reflects on a boyhood on a Flint Hills ranch. He describes range fires in the spring and a wind so relentless that trees grow sideways. In one memorable scene, Jack sits in a boring high school classroom, fanning himself with a textbook and staring out at pumping oil derricks, trying to predict when they’ll touch down in unison.

At 620 pages, “Wellness” doesn’t hold back or cut corners. But Hill’s writing is so vivid and his humor so biting and real, you kind of want it to go on forever.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.