Will Lightbody is a man with a stomach ailment whose only sin is loving his wife, Eleanor, too much. Eleanor is a health nut of the first stripe, and when in 1907 she journeys to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's infamous Battle Creek Spa to live out the vegetarian ethos, poor Will goes too. So begins T. Coraghessan Boyle's wickedly comic look at turn-of-the-century fanatics in search of the magic pill to prolong their lives--or the profit to be had from manufacturing it. Brimming with a Dickensian cast of characters and laced with wildly wonderful plot twists, Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review called The Road to Wellville "A marvel, enjoyable from beginning to end.
This book is set in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1907 and comprises three entwined stories. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg subjects the wealthy patients at the famed Battle Creek Sanatorium to a strict vegetarian diet and exercise regime, along with a wide variety of treatments, some of which, like poor Ida Muntz's radium therapy, could be doing them more harm than good. Although he is revered by most of his staff and patients Dr. Kellogg has an altogether more difficult relationship with his adopted son George who hates him and everything he stands for.
Charles Ossining comes to town intending to set up a breakfast cereal company, only to discover that every man and his dog has had the same idea a. Charles and his business partner, a conman named Bender, join forces with George so that they can use the famous Kellogg name on their new breakfast cereal, while George is only to happy to be involved in a scheme that will embarrass his father.
On the train into Battle Creek, Charles meets Will and Eleanor Lightbody, who are planning a long stay at the sanatorium. Will is immediately put on a regime of enemas and a very restricted diet to treat his 'autointoxication' and sort out his terrible stomach problems, and is upset to find out that he and Eleanor are in separate rooms on different floors. Dr. Kellogg is strongly against the debilitating effects of sexual intercourse and prefers to keep married couples apart as much as possible, so they are not even seated together in the dining room. Eleanor, who has stayed at the sanatorium before, is much happier with this arrangement and starts to spend a lot of time with her handsome doctor.
An amusing and enjoyable story set at a fascinating time and place in American history.
The closed world of the sanitarium is a promisingly insular setting for the kind of comic novel that TC Boyle likes to write, and he manages to take in everything here from yogurt enemas, through insane diets (‘protose patties with gluten mush’, anyone?), budding entrepreneurs, down-and-outs, tycoons, alcoholism, opioid addiction, animal experimentation and the nascent nudist movement, all the way to the infamous ‘womb massage’ treatment for hysteria.
In a novel of two hundred pages, all this would have been a riot; at just shy of five hundred, I found it ultimately exhausting. Boyle's sense of humour does not quite agree with me: his main technique involves setting his characters up for great success, allowing them to reach the brink of attaining something wonderful, and then making sure that they fail in the most humiliating and unpleasant way possible at the last minute. I think this is supposed to be comic, but the effect on me was draining. (I vaguely remember feeling something similar during the last TC Boyle book I read, Water Music, too.) In this case, the ending
It's almost worth dipping into The Road to Wellville just to sample the mood of this strange time and place, which really is fascinating. But overall, it's not so much Gr-r-reat! as Aver-r-rage!
Edit: Last night we watched the film version from 1994, directed by Alan Parker. It's great fun, and solves a lot of the problems with the book's plot – and it only requires an investment of two hours. So on balance, I'd recommend that instead.
The novel’s dark humor is its most striking aspect. The descriptions of the medical treatments, the enemas, the food at the sanitarium, the lectures by Kellogg, the odd characters who were drawn to the treatments, read like an odd mixture of Faulkner and Dickens. And it has plot! We follow the Will Lightbody and his wife Eleanor on the road to Wellville, along with an assortment of minor characters and subplots. Highly inventive and a great read.
It's a fairly entertaining look at a quirky little corner of history -- and one that highlights how depressingly little pseudoscientific health fads have changed since then. The back cover blurbs on my copy bill it as a hilarious satire, but while it is somewhat satirical, it's not really laugh-out-loud funny. Mostly, it just lets the (often tragic) absurdity of the whole thing speak for itself.
Unfortunately, the characters and the story, such as it is, aren't nearly as interesting as the setting, and while quirkiness and historical interest carry the novel pretty far, they're not quite enough to sustain 475 pages , and by the end I was beginning to lose interest a bit. It does at least pull off a dramatic (indeed, perhaps somewhat over-the-top) climax, but that doesn't change the fact that it was still maybe about 100 pages too long.
The first time I read this, I was a young lad, so my impressions were bound to be different. But I do recall that it seemed Boyle was just plain laughing at all his characters, and that bothered me. Now I think I wouldn't have had that impression if he had made the main characters, at least, a bit more than robots. You really don't get any insight into why, for instance, Eleanor is the way she is, or even what she wants. I assume she's just a bored rich girl looking for a bit of fun. Why is Will such a milquetoast? What does he see in Eleanor? Everything's on the surface, despite the third-person writing. We hear their thoughts, but no light is shed on their inner hearts. Now I'm reading "East is East," also by Boyle, and a similar lack of depth/empathy is present. I guess that's just how he writes.
The book does seem to spend too much time on Will's treatment. It seems to go on forever, long past the point of the reader's interest in the strange procedures used. May as well have called it "The Road to Enemaville" or something.
Overall, a fun book. Recommended for fans of "Ragtime," historical fiction, and silly medical ideas.