Book Review: The Blondes: A Novel, Emily Schultz (2015)

April 22nd, 2015 11:48 am by Kelly Garbato

“Wow!” is right!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, forced pregnancy, and allusions to rape. This review contains minor spoilers, which are clearly marked.)

If you survive, the world you grow up in will be one that has experienced intense panic and distrust, violence and hysteria – though that’s a loaded word. I don’t think I would have used it before this past year. But now? All of us living with a disease that affects only girls and women? Hysteria is so bang on.

Authorities are now able to track the progression of symptoms, which are indeed similar to rabies. The public is advised to be wary – and here the prompter went into a list of symptoms – of women with raised voices, acting violently…

Lumbering, limping, exhibiting imbalance…

Flailing or throwing any object…

Grimacing, displaying a downturned expression…

“We’re not allowed to have downturned expressions?” the girl beside me muttered. “I mean,” she said a bit louder but still to me, “what if we’re just worried? In a bad mood? PMS?”

Several heads turned to look at her. It must have made her nervous because she ran her hand back through her hair. She was pale as an elephant’s tusk. […]

As I finished my sandwich, it occurred to me that the news captions on TV had all been directed at men. There was nothing about the symptoms women should look for in themselves.

(I apologize in advance if this review is all over the place, but that’s what happens when I fall hard for a book. I have so many thoughts I can’t decide which direction to go next!)

Graduate student Hazel Hayes is riding out the pandemic in a remote cabin outside of Toronto. It belonged to her thesis adviser, Dr. Karl Mann, with whom she had a brief affair. But he’s dead now, and there’s only Hazel, his wife Grace – and the unborn child that Hazel is carrying. It’s a girl; a dangerous thing to be, even in the days before the Blonde Fury swept the globe, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

One morning Hazel awakes with a start, only to find that Grace has fled from the cabin, leaving her stranded, alone – and heavily pregnant. As she weighs her options, Hazel recounts her story to the alien occupying her insides: the story of how she met and became involved with Dr. Mann; the story of how blonde women brought the world to its knees; and the story of the here and now and what-then.

The narration flits between three time periods: the present, the past/during the pandemic, and the past/pre-pandemic. I didn’t find it terribly confusing, but occasionally had trouble fitting events in their proper timelines.

One thing you need to know going in: The science is absurd and makes little sense. If you can get past this – and won’t hold an unintended pregnancy and desire for an abortion against the narrator – then you might just love the weird blend of horror, satire, science fiction, and feminism that is The Blondes.

So. The science. The Siphonaptera Human Virus (SHV) – commonly known as Blonde Fury, aka Gold Fever, Suicide Blondes, and California Rabies – is a rabies-like disease that afflicts only women, and only light-haired women, at that. Natural blondes, yes, but also bleach-blondes, and even elderly women with graying hair. Red-heads – of which Hazel is one – being a bit of an in-between color, are also suspect. Once infected, the sufferer becomes mentally impaired and exhibits unprovoked violence, directed both at oneself and others. While there is no cure – the infected are simply shuttled to wards, strapped down, and sedated – shaving or dying light hair dark is touted as a preventative.

As for the cause, there’s some talk about fleas, alleles, and melanin, but nothing that makes a whole lot of sense – something Schultz cleverly acknowledges in the story. None of the scientists agree on a model, and as the story progresses, various theories are revised or shot down entirely. As public confidence wanes, conspiracy theories abound; cue the Flea Vector Denialists. While fleas are eventually cleared as vectors, this doesn’t stem real-world consequences for their carriers, dogs and cats, who are surrendered to shelters en mass. (In Grace’s words, “There’s only so much my heart can take.”)

* begin minor spoilers *

Schultz expertly weaves the personal with the political via Hazel, a Windsor/Toronto native who’s in New York City researching her thesis when the Blonde Fury breaks out. She witnesses the first attack on the subway; the second, which takes place in a salon, strikes a rather personal chord with Hazel – her mother is a stylist.

The pandemic arrives just as she discovers that she’s pregnant – punished for her desire. She attempts to get an abortion, but is stymied by a Blonde Fury attack at the clinic the night before her appointment. The clinic is supposed to open the following week, but never does – in light of the pandemic, women’s health care is deemed too great a risk.

In light of this, Hazel plans a premature return to Toronto – but again, her plans go bust when stewardesses attack at LaGuardia airport. She faces three days in quarantine, but is sprung early by her unwanted pregnancy status. A quick test clears her, while her non-pregnant passengers are left to suffer in an airplane hangar. As she notes much later in the book: “People are kinder to the unborn than they are to the women themselves.”

With the airlines shut down and border security tightening like a noose, Hazel decides to rent a car and drive to Canada. Alas, her red hair does her in; she fails the “carpet-and-drapes” test (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like) and is thrown into quarantine once again: Women’s Entry and Evaluation (WEE) for eight weeks. Staffed almost exclusively by military men and filled with women completely disconnected from the outside world, it’s a veritable recipe for sexual assault and rape (which is hinted at, but never seems to transpire). Likewise, the cramped, close quarters all but invite an epidemic.

* end spoilers *

Needless to say, Hazel’s repeated requests for an abortion go unfulfilled. Forced pregnancy, courtesy of the government.

With a MA in Cultural and Communication and her pursuit of a PhD in Communication Studies – her thesis is in aesthetology, “the study of looking” – Hazel is uniquely qualified to comment on the causes and effects of the Blonde Fury: The rise of the blonde bombshells in early Hollywood at the expense of dark-haired beauties (see, e.g., Dr. Kovacs’s own thesis). The high cost of maintaining dyed/shaved heads and bodies, which leaves poor blonde women more susceptible to contracting the disease. The festishization of “dangerous” blondes, and how this affects the sex industry, post-pandemic. The ways in which the Blond Fury plays into and exacerbates society’s misogyny and fear of women – and how it is employed to further subjugate women (see, e.g., Hazel’s futile attempt to procure an abortion, or woman-centric health care of any type).

While the book’s unusual yet simple title first caught my attention, it was Margaret Atwood’s blurb that made me pick it up despite its lackluster 3.29-star rating on Goodreads. “Wow!” is right.

The Blondes: A Novel has a distinctly Atwoodian feel to it – and this isn’t a compliment I give lightly, since Atwood is my all-time favorite. While The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be the popular point of comparison, I often found myself thinking of her 1969 classic, The Edible Woman. Not for any discernible reason, aside from a witty, biting sense of humor and taste for the absurd. But then there are also shades of, yes, The Handmaid’s Tale (the women’s detention center; the closing of the Canadian borders) and the MaddAddam trilogy (particularly in the weird yet trenchant cultural developments: I will see your Painballers and raise you blonde-backing). Schultz shares with Atwood an uncanny sense of foresight and attention to quirky cultural details.

Though my review has primarily focused on the political, The Blondes is also a story about personal relationships: between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and women themselves, whether strangers or lifelong friends.

I also greatly appreciate the diversity of the story, which is as refreshing as it is appropriate. While the three primary characters that make up the “love triangle” at the heart of the story – Hazel, Karl, and Grace – are all white, Schultz does a wonderful job of capturing the diversity of NYC and Toronto. Moira Clemmons, a musician who Hazel befriends during her stay in NYC, is perhaps the most visible character of color; she’s black, with “a golden complexion and small dark freckles.” Larissa, Hazel’s best friend, is married to Jaichand (“Jay” for short), who is of Indian descent; their son Devang is biracial. The first Blonde Fury attack victim in NYC is a teenage girl named Eugenia Gilongos, who’s Filipino. One of the men who helps try to save her is Spanish. The blonde woman who attacks her stylist is Thai. An afflicted flight attendant at LaGuardia is “black with bronzed hair.” When the attack at LaGuardia happens, Hazel finds refuge in a Starbucks; both baristas (Mae and Kate) are young Korean women. One of the women held in the WEE alongside Hazel is First Nations. I could go on, but you get the idea.

My only quibble? I really want to know what happened with Lara. There’s so much untapped potential in that story line.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. While the three primary characters that make up the “love triangle” at the heart of the story – narrator Hazel Hayes; her professor/love Dr. Karl Mann; and Karl’s wife, Grace – are all white, Schultz does a wonderful job of capturing the diversity of NYC and Toronto. Moira Clemmons, a musician who Hazel befriends during her stay in NYC, is perhaps the most visible character of color; she’s black, with “a golden complexion and small dark freckles.” Larissa, Hazel’s best friend, is married to Jaichand (“Jay” for short), who is of Indian descent; their song Devang is biracial. The first Blonde Fury attack victim in NYC is a teenage girl named Eugenia Gilongos, who’s Filipino. One of the men who helps try to save her is Spanish. The next day, a blonde woman attacks her stylist; she’s Thai. An afflicted flight attendant at LaGuardia is “black with bronzed hair.” When the attack at LaGuardia happens, Hazel finds refuge in a Starbucks; both baristas (Mae and Kate) are young Korean women. One of the women held in the WEE alongside Hazel is First Nations.

 

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