Book Club: The Blondes by Emily Schultz

16054814This was a fun choice for book club. There was a lot to think about, and even figure out. The biggest question that arose was: what is this book really trying to say? I’m still not entirely sure. But here’s the blurb on the back of the book:

With The Blondes, acclaimed writer Emily Schultz has created an audacious and witty page-turner that smartly probes the complex relationships among women – and between women and men – in a world not so different from our own… except for a mysterious and deadly contagion infecting only those with a particular shade of hair.

Hazel is in love with her thesis advisor, and finds herself pregnant with his child while on a trip to New York. On the day she finds out about her pregnancy, she is witness to an attack in the subway station of a young girl by an older blonde lady. In the days that follow, there are more attacks by blonde women spreading around the globe. A viral epidemic is declared, and panic ensues. Women shave off their hair or dye it as dark as they can. Hazel comes back to Canada and is detained at the border because of her red hair, then sent to a quarantine facility. Hazel and the other women at the facility are there for 8 weeks where they are treated as though they have done something wrong. Once she is out, Hazel goes in search of her thesis advisor at his cabin in the woods, and instead finds his wife who is not at all happy to see her and the bump she carries with her. But Hazel has no where else to go, so Grace allows her to stay. Despite Grace’s extreme hostility, they hide out together at the cabin for a while, Grace being very particular about daily shaving. But one morning Hazel wakes up to find herself alone. She is 8 months pregnant. Will Grace come back for her, or will she have to find other arrangements before the baby comes? The whole story is told by Hazel, talking to her unborn baby while alone in the cabin.

This premise might be seen as far-fetched by some, but it does offer a lot to think about, and discuss. I, for one, thought it was a fun and thought-provoking read.

I don’t know which terrifies me more: the effects the virus has had on the world, or that it could circle invisibly and descend upon us in the first place.

Opinions from the book club: Our group was split right down the middle on this one; half of us liked it and half of us didn’t. One person thought there was too much going on. There is a lot going on, contributing to the confusion about what the book is really trying to say. But I like books with a lot going on, so this was okay with me. Someone else thought the protagonist was wishy-washy; too passive. My own feeling is that Hazel was walking around in a bit of a stupor from the shock of her unwanted pregnancy, coupled with the rising attacks around the country. However, when it came to her relationship with her thesis advisor, she was passive – something that turned out to aggravate her situation in the end. One last complaint was that the premise was unrealistic. This might just be personal preference – I thought the outlandish premise is what made the book fun. If you have trouble with outlandish plots, then you might be disappointed. But if you are reading it for what the story has to say about our world/culture/relationships, then I think you will find it has a lot to offer.

22545442Topics for discussion:

  • What does the book say about women’s relationships with each other?

Women have stupid dreams. We laud each other only to tear each other down. We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance – if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain. We’ll comment on your hair or your dress only to land a back-handed compliment, make you feel pathetic and poor, too fat or too thin, too young or too old, unsophisticated, unqualified, unwanted. For women, power comes by subtle degrees. I could write a thesis on such women – and I nearly did.

(For the most part, I don’t agree with this. In my own experience, women’s relationships with each other have been sincere. But it’s good discussion material. What do you think?)Β 

  • What does it say about our culture’s obsession with beauty and sex? (As the book takes place in Canada and the US, any mention of culture refers to North American culture.)

Other ads were hyper-masculine, edging into the territory women’s advertising had occupied for years, where women were portrayed as twinned naifs, lover-like but without sex characteristics: pretty things fawning together over pretty things that could be bought and sold. A man with all the glam charms of the 1970s lay in recline. He was thickly muscled, his black hair frizzing out from his head, his lips overly red, a feminine choker lacing his throat, a black vest over his nude torso. Behind him sat his buddy, white-gold and gleaming with his shirt off, wearing only a cream-coloured knit scarf and a pair of jeans. DO WHAT YOU WANT, the top tagline read, and beneath the models’ feet: NOW MORE THAN EVER and a logo. I think it was for jeans or maybe clothing… but the subtext was that this was a better time to sleep with men than women.

  • What does it say about the reactions of people in a time of crises and fear? (Panic, paranoia, odd behaviour mistaken for the ‘Blonde Fury’, abandoning pets for fear of the possibility that their fleas might be carriers of the virus, strict regulation at the borders, quarantine facilities)

The men were intimidating, but I knew they’d acted as they did because of the dire circumstances in room 3. I don’t think they were expecting any of us healthy women to attempt to bust out. What would they do, shoot me?

  • What does it say about greed and opportunity? Supply and demand? How quickly things change and become the new norm? Advertisements everywhere for tanning beds and creams to darken the skin, razors for women (“Get her a gift she really needs – a gift for the whole family – the Danco razor.”), ‘Blonde Memory’ perfume (“Bottle it. Wear it. Fear it.”), protective ointments and sprays such as ‘Blond-Away’ and ‘Blond-Off’.

A syndicated sex columnist had coined a new phrase, ‘blonde-backing‘, which was labelled a high-risk activity. The column confirmed that there were men who would pay ridiculous rates to have sex with blonde women… Just a few tricks would pay for a full semester at an Ivy League school.

  • What does it say about human behaviour in the long run?Β I really didn’t know what was going to happen to Hazel and her baby, or the state of the world and humanity. But the ending surprised me, and offered some hope and tenderness after all that hostility and isolation. In the end, in a time of fear and mistrust, the deep desire to be part of a group and to have someone you can count on wins out. It was subtle, but it was there. Good ending.

 

 

 

 

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40 thoughts on “Book Club: The Blondes by Emily Schultz

  1. JacquiWine says:

    It’s good to read something fun for book group every now and again, especially if it prompts a lively discussion – the points on our culture’s fixation with beauty sound particularly relevant. We have a rotating pick in ours, which works relatively well, although there are times when we end up with a run of very similar books – usually novels with a big moral dilemma at the centre. It would be nice if we had a bit more of a mix of books for a chance of pace!

    • Naomi says:

      So much of this book was well done – very smart.
      Our book group is relatively new, so we don’t have all the kinks worked out yet (maybe we never will!). We also try to rotate, but sometimes it just comes down to who is ready to suggest a book, and which book sounds best to everyone. It is nice to have some variety, though. I’ve read a few books for it that I would never have picked up on my own.

  2. susanosborne55 says:

    It does sound like an interesting book for discussion. I’d echo Jacqui’s comment about beauty. There’s so much money to be made out of our insecurities about what we look like, and now men are firmly in advertisers’ sights, too.

  3. Elle says:

    I don’t understand the whole shaving/dying business. If it’s a virus that affects only blonde women, surely that’s a genetic thing? You can’t change your genotype just by changing your phenotype. Or does the book’s logic not work that way? (In which case, ARGH, WHY NOT.)

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! Exactly. That was the problem I had with the book’s premise. And I also thought it could have easily been made to make more sense. Why not just make it a genetic thing? There is a bit of an explanation for it, but I either missed something or it still doesn’t make sense. I do know that part of the problem in the story is that they didn’t know how the virus worked, which helps to create more panic caused by things like what the scientists are saying (at one point they thought it might be contracted through fleas, and even though it was later stated not to be the case, people were still abandoning their pets, etc.). There are also all the new products coming out to help get rid of hair and darken the skin. These things probably couldn’t have been in the book if the problem was simply genetics. But if you can get past the iffy epidemic, then you’re good. πŸ™‚

      • Elle says:

        I guess the point was perhaps to make beauty standards a major theme? Could have done something amazing with the fact that people’s adherence to beauty standards is luck of the genetic lottery, though, in that case. Oh well.

      • Naomi says:

        I think it also adds to the panic and mistrust. No one knows for sure who is really susceptible to the virus or what can be done to prevent catching it, so people are walking around paranoid and jittery.
        And this is where the question comes in: Is there too much going on in the book? What is the main message she is trying to get across? I think there are several, which doesn’t really bother me, but may bother others.

      • Elle says:

        Oh, that too makes sense. I think it’s certainly possible for a writer/novel to juggle several “themes” at once, but it requires a lot of control and elegance and integration – it’s hard!

  4. ebookclassics says:

    I saw this book at the library, but didn’t know what to make of the plot. Some of the concepts are interesting, but I guess it depends on how the author conveyed her ideas in the story. I’m not surprised your book club found so much to talk about.

    • Naomi says:

      I thought the story was well done, but you kind of have to be in the mood for something a little off-the-wall. Which I was. πŸ™‚

  5. Grab the Lapels says:

    I remember a co-worker complimenting my new dress and the adding “but I’m not sure about that belt.” As if I’d asked her opinion, as if we were friends. I went home and threw the belt away.

  6. The Cue Card says:

    Hmm. I hadn’t heard of this one. What an unusual & quirky story. Is it a satire? You have me curious now about how it ends. Hope the Blondes are out and the Redheads are in. The brunettes get shafted right?

    • Naomi says:

      You never really do find out about the Redheads, but I think they’re okay. The brunettes are safe. It’s very good to be a brunette. πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      In this book it’s no good to be a blonde – no one wants to be blonde anymore – they want to be anything but. So, that’s one for the brunettes, isn’t it? It’s just that they’re not in the title.
      Besides, a lot of us blondes can’t help being blonde. πŸ˜‰ In fact, some of us would love to be darker, so that we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the sun! Some day there might not be any of us left if the atmosphere keeps deteriorating…
      The Cigarette Girl sounds like it might tie in a bit to The Blondes. There’s a section in the book that talks about the history of Hollywood’s leading ladies – why they went from ‘dark beauties’ to ‘blonde beauties’. The men were insecure about their heritage and culture, so they started choosing blondes over brunettes. If that’s true, it’s certainly interesting!

      I’m curious now – if you wrote The Brunettes, what would it be about?

      • Don Royster says:

        Not sure what The Brunettes would be about. Maybe something causing all the brunettes in the world to disappear. Maybe it’s the last two brunettes. Now wouldn’t that be interesting. Of course, this is just making things up on the spot.

        Now your insight about Blondes, and wanting to have darker hair, that might make a great story. If you’ve ever thought of writing a short story or novel, I think you’ve hit upon something interesting.

      • Naomi says:

        Feel free to take that idea and write about it yourself if you want – I have a feeling it won’t be me. πŸ™‚

  7. Bina says:

    That sounds like a great book for discussion! Also, I like the outlandish premise πŸ™‚ I guess the passivity would bother me, but maybe it works if the character and her context show why she acts that way. Definitely an intriguing book, I would hope that the book explores relationships between women by showing how women in our society are pitted against each other and the gender hierarchies causing this. Such things always make me glad for close friends who choose not to partake in this and it’s one of the reasons I love books about female friendship and sisterhood so much πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      I think her passivity is partly her personality. But I found that some situations caused her to be more passive than others. And, yes, I think there are reasons for the way she is. I also think that her passivity works for her in terms of the panic around her, and a couple of the situations she finds herself in. An example of the fact that passivity is not necessarily a bad thing!
      I found the overall message (when all is said and done) more in line with the strength of women’s relationships than their destructiveness.
      I agree – hooray for books about female friendship and sisterhood!

      • Bina says:

        That sounds like a great context then and well done by the author! I think active strong female MCs appeal a lot but passivity and the reasons for it are so important.

  8. Carolyn O says:

    This does sound like a great book club pick! You’ve laid out the book’s failures and successes really well, Naomi (I think I’ll pass, but the focus on beauty culture does make me want to read Dietland again!).

  9. whatmeread says:

    I just realized I hadn’t gotten an email notification from your blog since Boobs! It would be better if I never got one, because then I would remember to check your blog, but since they are intermittent, it’s hard to know when I need to look and when I can skip it. This sounds like a really unusual book club choice! I bet it provoked a lot of discussion.

      • whatmeread says:

        It seems like I get every other one. Since I look at my email from work, I’m guessing that our email blockers are stopping some of it. It’s not being marked as Spam, because I can see those. It must not be making it to my desktop. I have the same problem with Carolyn’s site.

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