The Road to Wellville

by T. C. Boyle

Paperback, 1994





Penguin Books (1994), Edition: New, 476 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member isabelx
She was even then undergoing one of Dr. Kellogg's newest and - if you believed his self-puffery - most efficacious cures for chlorosis and a host of other conditions, from erysipelas and obesity to ingrown toenails: inhaling radium emanations. Radium, as Will understood it, was some sort of stone that gave off healing rays or vibrations. The Curies has discovered it, along with polonium, and won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics in acknowledgment of their achievement in isolating this miraculous substance. Dr. Kellogg had picked right up on it. A stone. A healing stone. It almost sounded pagan.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Widsith
This fat, picaresque novel focuses on the elite but quackish sanitarium run by Dr JH Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the early days of breakfast cereals. Kellogg was a powerful orator, a staunch vegetarian and a proponent of the kind of health fads that we'd nowadays class as alternative medicine; he also had some morbidly puritanical ideas about sex (cornflakes, famously, were originally intended to stop people masturbating – on what principle, I'm not sure, unless he planned to scatter them in people's beds).

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 turned out to be quite a happy one, which, unusually for me, actually made up for a lot.

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! No I'm not proud of it.

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.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
An outstanding novel. Boyle really outdid himself with this creative treatment of the Kellogg sanitarium and the breakfast food boom centered around Battle Creek Michigan in the early twentieth century.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jamnjazzz
Obviously the one that broke TC into view for many. All in all, not as meaningful as some of his others (Tortilla Curtain, Friend of the Earth), but certainly a wonderful study in the charms and dangers of snake oil that can be meaningful today (any infomercial or Dr. Phil for christ sack).
LibraryThing member arouse77
moderately enjoyable. a fairly interesting portrayal of the sometimes batty lengths americans will go to in pursuit of health. just confirms my tendency to think we just need to do the thing that guy who wrote 'In Defense of Food' suggested: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
The opening scene is cinematic in its grandeur. Great hook and something Boyle does so well. Kellogg as the ultimate shyster; part preacher, part side-show hustler. He was fabulously crazy in the most successful way you can be crazy; selling the crazy to the desperate. Like many diets today and of yesteryear, it’s almost Puritanical in its denial of things we love; food for pleasure is the sin. No matter how much worse an inmate at ‘The San’ gets, they ignore it and double down. If one dies, they must have been doing it wrong, or not doing it enough. Will baffled me the most since he didn’t want to be there in the first place. As he got worse, why didn’t he just leave? After a while I started skipping Kellogg’s self-aggrandizing, anti-meat speeches. It was fun, but so over-the-top and prolonged that I was glad for the sub-plot involving Bender and Ossining; boss and bagman, con and dupe. I won’t tell you how that one ends, but it surprised me. Boyle does a great job when wrapping a fiction around a historical event, but this one could have been tighter. Losing about 100 pages would have been a good idea; maybe he needs to send the book to The San.… (more)
LibraryThing member kishields
A fun book, but could have been edited down to a more manageable size. Interesting portrait of a wacky health craze when cereal was invented. Very involving towards the end when everything comes together.
LibraryThing member TheInvernessie
What a bizarrely comical book. The epilogue tied the entire thing together, and made the last bits fall into place. I enjoyed reading about quackery. However I do feel that if someone does not have the historical knowledge needed to fully understand this book, a few things would be left unnoticed.
LibraryThing member jastbrown
Enjoyable book about one of the originators of cold cereal, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his devoted and dotty followers at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
LibraryThing member MacsTomes
Rather wordy- clever plot line re John Kellog & Battlecreek. Good character development.
LibraryThing member bragan
This novel is set in Battle Creek, Michigan, the breakfast-food capital of the world, in the early days on the 20th century. It features a slick, unscrupulous businessman trying to make it in the cereal biz; patients at John Harvey Kellog's Sanitarium, home to daily enemas and bizarre health foods; and the great health quack Kellog himself. (The still-extant cereal company, by the way, was actually not his, but his brother's, and was a source of great conflict between them.)

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.
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LibraryThing member BobNolin
Read this when it came out (20 some years ago), and then again recently. I liked it a lot more this time. There isn't a whole lot of depth to any of the characters; they just seem to each have a list of quirks or characteristics ("anti-sex", "lacks backbone", "bored rich girl looking for excitement", etc.). One character, George Kellogg, one of the many many adopted children of Dr. Kellogg, stands out in that his motivations are completely unexplained. Neither we nor the Doctor can figure out why he is just plain bad. He serves to stir things up, and I'm guessing that's why he's there. But a little more explanation would have made him less obviously a plot device, and more of a real person. Once in a while we get some backstory on a character, but mostly we have no clue as where these people are coming from. What is driving Kellogg's missionary zeal? He's a man possessed. Why? What's he got against sex?

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.
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LibraryThing member SJFrancis
Excellent book! Funny, and at times poignant. Highly recommend. Beware, it is a rather quirky read.
LibraryThing member steller0707

What a hoot!
LibraryThing member SJFrancis
Excellent book! Funny, and at times poignant. Highly recommend. Beware, it is a rather quirky read.
LibraryThing member SJFrancis
Excellent book! Funny, and at times poignant. Highly recommend. Beware, it is a rather quirky read.
LibraryThing member SJFrancis
Excellent book! Funny, and at times poignant. Highly recommend. Beware, it is a rather quirky read.
LibraryThing member nog
Sort of a generic Boyle. Not the place to start.
LibraryThing member pussreboots
Film and book are both very sophomoric but I love then for it.


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