Full disclosure: I heard Emily Schultz speak at the Kingston Writersfest last weekend and connected to something in her live reading. Skimming the program at the beginning of the Writersfest, this book did not stand out to me in particular. I happened to be present at one of Schultz's rehearsals and then made it into a session where she was discussing paralleling themes between her novel The Blondes, with Melanie Dugan's book Dead Beautiful. The insight I gleaned here likely biased me toward an optimistic read; when I went to the bookstore, I was so attracted to the book cover (as mentioned by a previous reviewer here). I just loved holding the book. Also, Schultz penned "Stay beautiful!" with her autograph and I know I felt my criticism soften when reading the book because of such a positive impression of the author.
This is my first read by Schultz, although now I scan her other titles I am way more likely to pick them up. I don't usually read something so light in humor. The jacket says the author spends her time between the big Apple and southwestern Ontario so it makes sense the book takes place in all of these places, allowing the setting to ring very true.
I judge this book based on my assumption that the story of The Blondes is meant to be a satire on humanity's response to fear - and in this case fear is triggered by an infectious disease outbreak. The wit and subtlety are layered on by the fact the disease is a rabies mutation that affects blonde females in particular. I mentioned the humor is light, but don't expect to be laughing or feeling light-hearted. The tone of the protagonist (the story is told in first person) is very dry and she is critical of other people, ill or well, and other times sympathetic; this outsider classification is represented perhaps by her naturally red hair. No one, including herself, knows where she falls e.g. susceptible or immune category.
There are scenes in the book that ring eerily true to reality. Seeing the last pandemic was the Spanish flu in 1913, scientists are currently expecting the natural cycle to come full circle but fell short with SARS, West Nile, Avian Bird flu, etc... So really, the Blonde Plague or a virus like it is not too far from expected. Knowing that responses by characters in the book are familiar to ones we see in the news today, it does in a funny way make me scared to think what arbitrary disease or next-wave pandemic will divide us and which side will I be on? The side making the policies and tough-calls for the sake of public health? The activists speaking out for individual lives? The parent doing everything to protect their family? Turning against all beings until scientists discover the mechanism and incubation period and find a cure... including your own pets / friends / neighbors? Hoarding resources?
One scene that just stuck with me was where a person was behaving oddly, but people were unsure whether to respond with compassion or aggression. Since the symptoms of the virus are all behavioral, women with PMS or having a bad day could be suspected. In this case, Hazel observed the oddly behaving stranger likely had mental illness -- common among Toronto's homeless population.
I like this book, although the topic familiar in the sci-fi movies like Contagion (2011), has some fresh approaches. Also, to add more of a twist Hazel looking for an abortion during this whole outbreak - and she races against time to have the choice.
I really like this book. I know the plot is not straightforward, and the story's voice is from a young woman, awkward on her best day, but I find the details clever. Listening to Schultz speak about her book, she was able to come up with the story after experiencing pregnancy herself. Likewise I do find there are instances that depend on the reader to draw on his/her experiential memories to understand the nuances of the emotions and plot. Especially during attack scenes, I felt I was falling behind - not able to keep up with the pace; perhaps saving us the details was meant to save inappropriate gore.
Schultz said she herself identified very little with Hazel - the protagonist. I found it interesting she said that. I don't identify with Hazel but her outsider perspective is very strong. Not having many friends. Although studying the made-believe subject on the appearance of things for her PhD, she doesn't seem to have a grasp of how she appears. This is repeatedly brought to us by the fact she loses her glasses, chooses not to wear them, they get scratched, and broken... other times tears clouding her vision. Maybe I like that puzzle the reader must accept, having discern events from Hazel's muddled recollections to get the true perspective.