How do we look at women?
That’s the question posed by Emily Schultz’s new novel, The Blondes. Sleeping under the surface of its pandemic-panic plot is a study of the many guises of misogyny. As a new virus, dubbed “Blonde Fury,” ravages select populations – namely women and girls who have blond hair or whose hair has been dyed blond – fear of the female, and of the trappings of femininity, erupt. Secret suspicions about women and girls are made visible. And it’s not just men who fear women, but women, too, complicit in doing harm to one another in ways that are often silent or disguised.
Hazel Hayes is a character adrift in circumstance. An academic in her mid-20s who is pursuing a doctorate in communication studies, she has just moved from Toronto to New York City for reasons that are vague. When she discovers herself pregnant by her married adviser, she seems incapable of action.
Dazed and wandering the city, Hazel witnesses the first of what will become many attacks in an apparent pandemic. Infected women and girls go on sudden violent rampages, killing bystanders or destroying property, their attacks spreading terror. As the media pieces together clues about the mysterious virus, blond women everywhere become pariahs. The Blondes, as the infected are called, are treated as if they themselves are the virus, and are as likely to be shot as put in a hospital.
Blond women everywhere shave their heads, or dye their hair dull brown. If beauty is literally deadly, who wants it?
Much of the book’s action takes place in retrospect. Hazel tells the story to her unborn baby while hiding away, alone, in that most Canadian of all getaways: a cottage. And while Hazel is a solitary figure, what she’s struggling to puzzle through are her troubled relationships with other women. After all, her unborn baby is a girl, and she is about to embark on that most fraught of female relationships: mother-daughter.
Interesting, then, that Hazel’s relationship with her own mother, who earned her living as a hairdresser, comes across most sympathetically. Hazel is a professional observer whose thesis is about “what women look like and what we think they look like,” but her mother is a do-er, performing the raw stagecraft of helping women look their best. Her view of beauty and its uses is uncomplicated and refreshingly crude: “Every year when she styled for prom, she called it ‘Do and Douche’ season. These were girls, she said, who would lose their virginity in exchange for a limo ride. She wasn’t looking down on them, she was just pinning their hair up.”
Schultz seems intent on asking the ugly questions about beauty. Is beauty a feminine ploy, operating on behind-the-scenes deception, in order to win men and money? Is it an artificial commodity? Between women – even friends – is it a strategy, a power play? Is beauty malleable, tied to culture and circumstance, its value like money – a currency dependent on the faith we put in it? Can we desire what we fear and fear what we desire? Yes, is the answer to all of these questions, and as with the book’s larger one – how do we look at women? – no surprising conclusions are drawn. Ideas are floated and then drift; this happens to a few of Schultz’s characters and narrative threads too.
But that may not matter greatly. It depends on what a reader is hoping to get out of this ambitious book. The Blondes is Schultz’s third novel. It’s being touted as her breakout work, and it’s easy to see why. The story weaves together elements of suspense and satire, with an academic overlay of critical cultural theory, but at its essence it is a fast-paced, unpretentious read. A wash-and-wear cut, if you will. Bounced through threats that feel creepily familiar, off-kilter in the way of Atwoodian speculative fiction, Hazel emerges as an everywoman, and a survivor.
Ultimately, The Blondes is streaked with honest sentiment and a surprisingly feel-good ending: dark enough to have weight, light enough to read at the beach.
Carrie Snyder is a redhead who’s never wanted to be anything else. Her second book, The Juliet Stories, was published in March.