In the 1970s and '80s, genre books and literary fiction were sharply divided, kept in separate sections of bookstores and libraries. Those divisions have faded into the past, however, thanks to readers who enjoy both and authors who write right through them.
Enter Emily Schultz. In her 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 heroine — or perhaps it's better to see her simply as narrator, because Hazel Hayes is more inclined to head to the library than do pushups and learn archery. She's 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, and she's swept along with the general chaos of unknowing that follows a disaster. 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.
No one has quite enough information, and competing theories emerge about what is happening. With fear taking hold, regulations — quite possibly over-harsh and irrational — are imposed.
Not just blonds but any woman with a light complexion is suspect. Hazel is a redhead who dyes her hair chestnut. Stores can't stock enough dark dye, and natural blonds shave their heads, even eyebrows, with the hope that being hairless will keep them safe.
Amid all this, Hazel has an even bigger problem: She's pregnant. The father is her thesis advisor 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.
We know from the story's outset that Hazel makes it to Canada and finds relative safety for herself and the child she will bear with, of all people, her lover's wife. How that happens, and the strangeness of it, are sad and human and the heart of the book.
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'd 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.
Thomas Dunne Books: 400 pp., $25.99