Unleash rabid blonde killers in an apocalyptic New York City, then add a pregnant woman trying to make her way outside city limits to inform her married lover he’s the father. The result is an attention-grabbing premise for a novel.
Hazel Hayes, a culture and communications Ph.D. student in Manhattan, learns she’s pregnant by her thesis adviser, Dr. Karl Mann, on the same day a subway attack marks the outbreak of a strange illness that turns blonde women into killers. Amid the chaos, Hazel struggles to get back to her hometown of Toronto, ultimately taking refuge in a Northern Ontario cottage where she finds herself trapped with Karl’s wife, Grace.
Emily Schultz’s third novel has no shortage of catfights and gory deaths, but despite its dystopian setting, the book is really an examination of female relationships. As they wait out the ongoing apocalypse, Hazel comes to know Grace in a way she never knew Karl (who isn’t very likeable to begin with).
Schultz flips between past and present, weaving satiric wit and astute observations with elements both real and supernatural. The style is effective, though the novel’s central conceit – Hazel reciting the entire story aloud to her unborn child – is somewhat awkward. Hazel attributes her pristine memory to her field of study, but for such a careful observer, she at times has no sense of the world around her: she doesn’t realize the extent of the catastrophe unfolding until the sixth New York attack. (This can perhaps be justified by her fixation on her newly discovered pregnancy.)
The story is sprinkled with ephemera Hazel has gleaned over the years – hair tips and references to pop culture – which rounds out the novel’s exploration of physical beauty and its effects on women. As women shave their heads to avoid contracting the disease, wigs, turbans, and elaborate hats suddenly become trendy fashion accessories. Even when looks can literally kill, Schultz suggests, they remain a top priority.