published in Canada 2012
published in the US 2015
Kovacs wasn’t looking at me. She was blinking in the [shop] window… She flicked her fingers and frowned at the mannequins. She was dressed more casually than the last time we had met, but still expensively, a dark sweater and jeans, a cashmere scarf that might have been Hermes draped loosely about her neck.. I wondered if there was a designer collection out there inspired by “What to Wear to a Young Woman’s Abortion.” It occurred to me that she had probably spent as much on her day-off sweater as I was about to throw down at the clinic.
I marvelled that people in my age group were supposed to be the demographic for the store in front of us. I gestured to a figure in a chambray jumpsuit - a strapless top and a cinched elastic waist. It would flatter someone only if they were five-eight and 110 pounds.
“Can you see me in that?”
“No, I do not think so, dear. Leave it to the undergrads. They still need some regret in their lives.”
observations: Plague novels – not for me. But for a plague novel with passages like the above, I can make an exception. The Blondes is hilarious and satirical, and while telling a scarey and unsettling dystopian-future story, also gives a great commentary on modern life, gender relations, and both the way we look, and the way we look at one another.
A very nasty virus is hitting women, and mostly blonde women. It causes them to act strangely and then to attack, and often kill, people. It is something like rabies. Our narrator Hazel is telling her story to her unborn child, so we know from the beginning that her serious and extended attempts at getting an abortion are going to fail. She is trapped in New York by the crisis, but we know she will make it back to her home country of Canada – the book follows her journey, as the outbreak gets worse and worse.
There’s great writing in the book – I loved the NY cityscape with
the black corsetry of fire escapes a symphony of car honks, and the way all the florists and corner stores arrange their carnations and lilies on pedestals with bows, as if any given weekday is as important as prom night….– and the passage goes on to create a perfect picture of visiting a strange city.
Hazel, a graduate student, has had an affair with one of her teachers, a man who – it is obvious to the reader – is no good at all. Familiar stuff, and the everyday related issues alternate in the book with the horrors of the virus. There is an idea that if you have blonde hair you should dye it brown, though whether this is to avoid suspicion or because it’s actually thought to give protection isn’t clear. Hazel looks at the different brown shades, named after trees, available in hair dyes:
I went with the Ash Brown. Is an ash tree darker than a cedar or a walnut tree? Hair-colour names had ill-prepared us for questions of scientific classification.Hazel is a great heroine because it becomes obvious that she isn’t a great beauty or a great student, she’s not full of snappy comebacks, she has to work things out in a painstaking way – she reminded me somewhat of the weird heroine of Lottie Moggach’s recent book crossed with Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope (compliment – loved both these books). But she is brave and resourceful as well as very funny.
The list of symptoms of the virus include:
Women with raised voice, acting violently… grimacing, displaying a downturned expression.
But then this isn’t just a way of doing down women – the accounts of the attacks are absolutely terrifying and linger in the mind.
A young woman says ‘We’re not allowed to have downturned expressions?... What if we’re worried? In a bad mood?
The book is quite marvellous – an extraordinary combination of adventures, commentary on modern life, a satire on the way we look at women, terrific characters, and a horribly-well-imagined dystopia. Loved it.
Another affair with an academic in The Professor of Poetry here. Margaret Atwood’s post-plague novel After the Flood is here. And the wonderful Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel – more dystopia, superbly done – is here.
The black and white photo is by James Jowers, from the George Eastman House collection.