This 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.
- 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?)
- 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? 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.