There is a kind of science fiction fan that will reject a book like The Blondes on premise alone. They would say that the book’s central hook, that there is a kind of disease that turns blonde women, natural or dyed, into violent zombies, is too unrealistic to even be considered worth reading. These kinds of people are tedious and likely boring at parties. They are missing out on a clever, funny, at-times upsetting story that has a lot to say about beauty, adultery, how women are portrayed in media and how culture responds to femininity.

The story follows Hazel Hayes, a shiftless graduate student living in New York City, who discovers that she is pregnant at the same time that blonde women start mysteriously having public breakdowns and attacking strangers. She must decide what to do with the child, a product of a brief fling with a married professor, while trying to survive a world that is becoming increasingly oppressive and speculative toward women as the “Blonde Fury” becomes more widespread and severe.

A disease that turns blonde women into destructive lunatics is the kind of thing one might expect from a campy horror movie or b-level exploitation comedy. Schutlz isn’t blind to this; she does well in acknowledging all the possible interpretations of her central hook. Early in the novel, Hazel comes face-to-face with an afflicted woman while on a subway platform, and their interaction is as chilling as anything Stephen King has written in two decades. A later scene in which several stewardesses tear through an airport is as funny it is harrowing. When Hazel tries to cross the border to Canada in the book’s third act, the fair-haired youth is treated like a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. Schutlz makes all of these moments feel real, finding the right emotional kernel and maximizing it.

Hazel makes for a somewhat frustrating main character. She feels passive in her own story, moved by outside forces and the suggestions of older, more established authority figures. On the other hand, she tells her story from a simple-past, present-narration perspective, meaning she’s survived long enough to tell her story. In some moments, she will seem like a simple-minded, overwhelmed child. In others, she will rattle off a long list of pointed insights into how literature punishes women who commit adultery in stories. Her narration suggests a perspective that her past actions do not support. There’s an argument that this suggests the completion of a journey, but it feels incongruous, as if we’re reading two versions of the same people but never bridge the transformation.

It is not hard to point to the surface-level feminist criticisms and ideas at play in The Blondes; there are more than enough vignettes in this at-crisis version of the world that will ring true to any modern feminist cultural observer. What will compel after the novelty of its premise wears off is ultimately what to make of Hazel, her tryst with her former professor, the fallout of that decision and what Schultz is trying to say about women and society. The author makes that commentary more up for interpretation. It is both to the novel’s credit and its detriment that the main appeal is the character in the middle of a world coming apart. Hazel makes for an eerie ground-level view into this female dystopia, but one can’t help but want to spend a little more time watching it come apart.

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