Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers is a perfect skewering of wellness culture

What does wellness look like? 

If you'd asked me before the coronavirus pandemic, I would have started by railing against the term. Hijacked by Instagrammers, it had come to mean glossy shots of thin, white people obsessed with green juices and the latest overpriced retreat. It probably included a little cultural appropriation here or there (turmeric shots anyone?), and was something that was only available in its social media form to those with wealth and health.

But the pandemic has changed how I think about wellness, and made me embrace the term a little more. Perhaps that's because, as restricted as many of us are in the physical spaces we now have available to us, we've returned to a much more basic, and much more (although still not completely) equal, form of wellness. Now, it encompasses the delights of taking in fresh air, of going out daily in our own neighbourhoods and discovering hidden corners, of hearing the birds sing in the morning instead of the drone of heavy traffic. And it also encompasses the kindness we've both been giving and receiving throughout the pandemic.

The question, though, is whether this definition of wellness will last. Will we continue to embrace this new proximity to nature and each other – good for us physically and mentally – or will we soon return to a wellness culture only accessible to the few?

For those who hope our new wellness will last, it's time to use Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers as our argument for why. Moriarty, the author of Big Little Lies, takes the idea of the luxury retreat – a favourite of lifestyle influencers everywhere – and exposes its weaknesses and its excesses in such a perfect way that you'll never be taken in by those Instagram photos ever again.

The book's central character is Frances, a menopausal romance novelist who acts as our eyes and ears at a health resort outside of Sydney, Australia called Tranquillum House. There, a group of people – some middle-aged, some disillusioned, some grieving – have gathered to transform their lives. They'll do so over the course of a (very expensive) Ten Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat, a retreat that bans alcohol, caffeine, gluten and dairy (i.e. all the fun stuff). They're looked over – not after – at the retreat by Masha, best described as a wellness version of that high school PE teacher you dreaded.

Nine Perfect Strangers contains plenty of elements of drama that aren't realistic (it is fiction, after all), but its skewering of the cult of self-improvement is spot on. Moriarty knows we all, and even I admit this as much as I hate wellness culture, want to buy into the idea of self-improvement. But she also knows that the excesses of the movement can sometimes be ridiculous – from those unrealistic cleanses to the exercise regimes most of us couldn't fit into our yearly routines, yet alone our daily ones.

What Nine Perfect Strangers reminds us of is that it's ok to want to pursue self-improvement, but that we should do it on our terms. It's ok to want to be happier and look better, but we don't need to feel pressured to do so. And in this Covid-19 world, Nine Perfect Strangers illustrates that wellness isn't about fancy retreats and depriving ourselves, it's about inner strength and kindness, both to others and, importantly, to ourselves.

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