THE BLONDES, by Emily Schultz. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 384 pp., $25.99.
In Emily Schultz's new novel "The Blondes," a rabies-like virus sends those it infects into a violent rage. Whom does it infect? Blond women. Bleached blond, natural blond, highlights, it doesn't matter. And only women -- no men -- are at risk.
Into that sci-fi thriller plot drops our narrator. Hazel Hayes is a Canadian working on her PhD in aesthetics in New York, reading about things like "an examination of the metonymic progression in beauty product ingredients" and "a meaning-based explanation for complexions used in advertising."
Hazel happens to be in the subway when one of the first attacks hit. What seems like an isolated incident soon unfolds as a worldwide epidemic. Infected women turn into beasts that assault, maim, spread contagion, destroy themselves, even kill.
Amid all this, Hazel has an even bigger problem: She's pregnant. The father is her thesis adviser back in Canada, and he's married. Their affair was passionate, but she wasn't planning on having his baby. Yet her efforts to get an abortion are thwarted by the escalating crisis around her. Finally she decides she must return to Canada for the health services there.
And what started out as a pseudo zombie-tale is now also a road story, and a feminist bildungsroman, and a parable about prejudice and reproductive freedom and immigration.
Hazel is an interesting figure to take us through this hazardous landscape. Pudgy and clumsy, she inhabits her world with a determined physicality, frequently throwing up and getting scraped and bleeding through stitches. She's also intellectually ambitious, a first-generation academic from a single, working-class mom who drinks too much and has a string of mostly lousy boyfriends.
Some of Schultz's choices -- Hazel holes up in a run-down hotel called the "Dunn Inn" (sounds like "done in," get it?) -- fall a little short. Sometimes slapdash writing shows through. This is Schultz's first book with a major American publisher, whose attention she caught through a lucky coincidence. She published a novel with a small Canadian press in 2005 called "Joyland"; in 2013, Stephen King published a novella with the same title. Some confused King fans picked up Schultz's book, and while the mix-up resulted in some nasty Amazon reviews, Schultz chronicled the upside with a popular blog about the unexpected windfall, Spending Stephen King's Money.
That sense of humor underlies the basic conceit of "The Blondes," in which blond women, so long objects of the male gaze, suddenly become fearsomely threatening. Whatever the book's faults, it earns its keep with a posse of beautiful, impeccably clad stewardesses wreaking havoc on the concourse at JFK.