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Wellness: Book Summary and Ending Explained

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Note: the following discussion guide contains spoilers, as well as references to critical plot points and the conclusion of Wellness by Nathan Hill.

In 2023, Nathan Hill’s novel Wellness garnered widespread acclaim. Set in mid-1990s Chicago, it delves into the marriage of Jack and Elizabeth, who grapple with their stagnant relationship in their middle years.

The narrative explores how childhood experiences shape adulthood, while also lampooning the rapid pace of American society, the ever-evolving technology, and the relentless pursuit of self-improvement without a clear endpoint.

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Hill, a graduate of the University of Iowa with an MFA in creative writing from UMass Amherst, attributes his journalistic stint at the Cedar Rapids Gazette to refining his writing skills.

Wellness follows his successful debut, The Nix, published in 2016, which earned him the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Wellness soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and received accolades from Oprah Winfrey’s book club, as well as recognition from NPR, Amazon, and Audible.

In this guide we will go through the complete summary and ending explanation for Wellness by Nathan Hill.

Have a wonderful book club discussion! ✨

Summary | Ending Explained | Book Club QuestionsReview

Wellness Book Summary

Elizabeth Augustine and Jack Baker’s love story begins in mid-1990s Chicago. Jack, a photography student from Kansas, crosses paths with Elizabeth, a student from a wealthy east coast family attending DePaul University.

After graduation, they marry and have a son named Toby, opting to remain in Chicago. The narrative shifts between their perspectives, spanning moments from their shared and individual pasts to the novel’s present in 2014.

Their initial encounter occurs when Jack, photographing a band at a bar, invites Elizabeth to join him. As they bond, they realize their mutual experiences of isolation and not fitting in. Determined to embrace a bohemian lifestyle, they join a circle of like-minded friends who reject mainstream ideals and pledge to stay true to themselves.

As years pass, alternating chapters shed light on Jack and Elizabeth’s growing concerns and anxieties about their marriage. They decide to invest in a condo unit in a building undergoing renovation for condominiums.

Their old college friend, Benjamin Quince, who is the developer, informs them about delays due to protests against including low-income housing in the project. Despite Benjamin’s assurances, Jack becomes unsettled by Elizabeth’s requests for design changes, fearing they reflect her unhappiness.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth befriends Brandie, a fellow parent at their son’s school, who organizes playgroups. Elizabeth pushes Toby to participate despite his reluctance, as Toby has always been a challenge to parent.

Elizabeth, a psychologist working at “Wellness,” a company that researches the placebo effect, becomes involved in a project focusing on debunking weight loss products. The latest endeavor involves a placebo pill to measure its effects on romantic relationships.

When Elizabeth learns about Brandie’s marital issues due to infidelity, she gives Brandie the placebo pill, hoping to secure her support to keep Toby enrolled in the private school where Brandie holds influence.

Jack, on the other hand, seeks to reconnect emotionally with Elizabeth, but his attempts at avant-garde photography fail. During a gathering with Kate and Kyle, a couple they met through Toby’s school, Jack feels out of place. Kate and Kyle, who have an open marriage, suggest the idea to Jack and Elizabeth. Jack agrees to attend one of their parties to explore the concept further.

At the party, Kyle and Kate separate Jack and Elizabeth, prompting them to reflect on their marriage and its issues. While Kyle and Kate join the party, Elizabeth steps outside and encounters protestors from Community Corps, a group blending traditional Christianity with positive thinking.

Brandie is among them. After the protest, Brandie confronts Elizabeth, leading to Elizabeth revealing the truth about the placebo pill. In retaliation, Brandie escalates Community Corps’ protests against the condo development.

As Jack and Elizabeth drift further apart, retreating to separate bedrooms, the novel delves into pivotal moments from their childhoods. Elizabeth, raised as the only child in a wealthy family with a father deeply invested in politics, constantly moved due to his career, leaving her with a sense of rootlessness.

Her father, a demanding figure fixated on perfection, instilled in her a deep sense of shame regarding her family’s questionable wealth accumulation.

In contrast, Jack grew up with a self-absorbed mother who resented him, leaving him feeling unwanted and out of place. His solace came from his older sister Evelyn, an artist who inspired his love for art.

However, tragedy struck when Evelyn died in an accident, leading Jack’s parents to unjustly blame him. This led Jack to leave home for Chicago at 18, cutting ties with his family until a sudden Facebook friend request from his father years later.

During this time, Jack grappled with his father’s conspiracy theories while keeping his personal life hidden. Eventually, his father’s apology for blaming him for Evelyn’s death and news of his terminal illness prompted Jack to revisit his past. However, his attempt at reconciliation with his mother ended in disappointment.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth seeks guidance from her former mentor, Dr. Sanborne, regarding her marriage’s uncertainty, fearing Jack may not be her true soulmate. Dr. Sanborne suggests that people evolve over time, and the person she fell in love with may have changed.

Upon Jack’s return to Chicago, he expresses his desire to separate from Elizabeth. Additionally, Wellness faces closure after Brandie exposes its treatments as placebos. Elizabeth realizes she has been living for the future rather than the present, and rushes to reconcile with Jack.

However, upon arriving at their condo building, she discovers that Benjamin, in an attempt to commit insurance fraud, has set the building ablaze. She finds Jack outside, witnessing the destruction.

Wellness Book Ending Explained

So, what happens at the end of Wellness?

The novel looks at Jack’s relationship with his dad, Lawrence, using Facebook as a lens. It shows how technology affects us. We see how someone like Lawrence, who’s not good with computers, can get caught up in conspiracy theories online. Even Jack, who knows how Facebook works, falls into the trap of internet anger.

Instead of making amends with his son before he dies, Lawrence becomes obsessed with an Ebola conspiracy. Facebook values Lawrence’s engagement with extreme content over his familial connections, emphasizing profit over personal relationships.

The novel uses a list of algorithm enhancements to satirize our dependence on profit-driven technology, intensifying the emotional conflict between Jack and Lawrence. This highlights the conflict between Jack and Lawrence, showing how focusing on online drama hurts real-life connections.

In the final section of the novel, a crucial event that shapes Jack’s character today is revealed: his sister’s death. It’s a surprise to readers, as we only realize Evelyn is gone when she’s absent from Lawrence’s funeral. The author delays this revelation intentionally, creating suspense around Jack’s strained relationship with his parents and Lawrence’s apology for some unknown wrongdoing.

Jack avoids talking about Evelyn’s death, pushing it out of his mind. But when it’s finally revealed, we see how deeply it affected him. He feels extreme guilt, fueled by his mother’s insistence that he was to blame for the accident.

After his father’s funeral, Jack finds some closure. He realizes that despite their difficulties, Lawrence did love him in his own way. He also understands why his mother blamed him for Evelyn’s death—it stems from her own insecurities and jealousy. Jack accepts that his mother will never admit her wrongdoing. With these realizations, Jack can finally let go of his painful past and move on.

The novel ends with Elizabeth admitting why she feels insecure in her relationship with Jack. Jack believes they fell in love at first sight, which makes him certain they’re meant to be together forever. However, Elizabeth secretly recreated a love experiment, making her worry that Jack’s love for her is fake.

She feels guilty for potentially tricking him into loving her and doubts her own love for him. But by the end, Elizabeth talks with Dr. Sanborne and feels better about her marriage. She accepts that she can’t be sure if they’re soulmates but is happy loving Jack in the present. She also learns from an article that challenges her views on Toby.

She used to see him as a failure due to an experiment, but now she understands his choices better. The book shows how the characters can break free from scientific ideas and form more natural views about each other.

How did you like the ending of the novel? Happy reading! ❤️