Before I proceed with the review, let me begin by apologizing for the long silence. The last few months have been emotionally challenging and I have barely found the energy to read, let alone write about it. Now everything is a little better, and I find myself with a need to reconnect with you here, and honestly just write more in general.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about my latest read: The Blondes by Emily Schultz.
This novel, about a PhD student who ends up getting pregnant in the worst of circumstances, caught my attention with its apocalyptic premise (a virus that affects blonde-haired women and turns them into zombies!). It kept me with its strong characters and its pace, but it didn’t quite satisfy me at all the levels I wanted.
I was easily taken in by Hazel Hayes’ character: a studious, somewhat plain young woman with somewhat innocent expectations of love and sex, despite her academic knowledge of women’s objectification in publicity and the media. I enjoyed how transparent and honest she was throughout, and I appreciated how I didn’t have to always second-guess her motivations or her statements. Despite everything she’s been through, she keeps a kind of hopefulness and joy that I, being in the same situation, would certainly never have displayed.
In that sense, maybe she is a little idealized. Not that she is perfect, far from it, but Hazel constantly made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I was happy with her as a narrator, and she kept me coming back to learn more about her adventures coming back to Canada. As a heroine, she is ordinary: not beautiful, not rich, smart but not overly so; just the usual PhD smart. Her appeal lies in this commonness, in our ability, as women who statistically always think ourselves less beautiful than we really are, to see ourselves in her hatred of her hair color, in her uncertainty about her physical appeal and in her discomfort with a body (and a survival situation) that is not under her control anymore.
Just as I can’t prevent you growing inside me, little baby, my skin bulging more around you each week. I can’t stop your growing, can only watch and wait. I’m sure that Grace has left me here all alone on purpose, that this is a power play in the ongoing sad tale of the fallout from my affair with her husband. She’s left me in this, their second home, with all their things–and still I have nothing. She must know that to be alone out here at this stage in the pregnancy is more dangerous for me than anywhere I’ve been.
Hazel’s longing is for belonging, for family. She keeps imagining her best friend Larissa’s family and wishing the perfect mother, father and child would happen to her. But even that idyllic story doesn’t end well, and Hazel must find a different kind of family, one that isn’t printed on pregnancy pamphlets.
Interestingly, the final household of women, one of whom has had a baby with the other one’s husband, reminds me of the end of George Eliot’s Romola, where the same situation is presented as an alternative to men-dominated, morally imperiled families. And if The Blondes is about anything, it’s about the lengths at which women go to please men–and how men react when this turns against them. Women must, again, change their appearance, but this time for their own and everyone else’s safety.
The main focus of the book is on Hazel’s trying to come back home from New York while having to make a difficult choice about her pregnancy. The virus threat is treated as a circumstantial thing, an obstacle in Hazel’s way. This is where the book faltered a little for me. The adventure part was interesting–it was like running away from a part-time zombie apocalypse–but in the end, I was left on my appetite as to the whys and hows of the virus, called “SHV”.
Now, I get what the author tried to accomplished: she wrote from the point of view of an ordinary person, who knows nothing about science or viruses, and who only wants to be safe. However, by setting up such an interesting premise, I felt a bit let down by the lack of clear explanations. I suppose this is where too much realism can hurt fiction: there are rarely ever clear explanations for things in real life, but in a book I like my is dotted and my ts crossed.
But what was fascinating was the characterization of this threat: it affected not only natural blondes, but dyed blondes as well (and only the women). “Blondness” is not simply a genetic threat: it becomes a sociological one. Blondness, as the most common of hair color for models, women actors and women in the media, becomes a symbol of complicity with the system that forces women from all over the world to conform to this ideal of beauty.
When blondness turns deadly, the entire system of inspection, gaze and observation of women becomes sanctioned by the government and explicitly imposed on blondes, or “in-between” colors like Hazel’s red. The fact that some women choose to risk their lives to remain blondes during the outbreak raises an interesting question: why are we all risking our bodies, our minds and our spirits to conform to the image of the ideal female body? Are we not all turning into zombies ourselves?
As a story, this novel is successful enough to keep me reading until the end. The pacing is good, and the framing story (Hazel recounting her homecoming adventures to her unborn daughter) provides a good motivation for her honesty and openness. But where I found it far more interesting (and far too undeveloped) is in its sociological and feminist implications.