The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review

The CowsAlthough I hadn’t read any other books by Dawn O’Porter, I was delighted to be approached to review it as I loved the sound of a fearlessly frank and funny book about how women don’t have to fall into a stereotype. The story follows three women: Tara, a single mother who makes documentary films in a misogynistic office; Cam, a childfree blogger who documents her life and loves online; and Stella, grieving the loss of her twin sister to breast cancer and facing a decision to have a prophylactic mastectomy. One night, and one very public action, creates ties that bind the three women together in unexpected ways. Lots of topics we don’t read enough of are discussed in a refreshingly frank way – single motherhood, working moms, choosing to be childfree, online dating, the pressure to conform, fake friendships, female masturbation, public shaming, trolling. It’s a heady list, and the language is realistic rather than po-faced.

First things first – this is a rattling read, clipping along at a great pace and with several laugh out loud moments. There were also a few full body cringes at times, in that delicious way that made The Office so enjoyable to watch. I wish I had read it on holiday (I wish I was on holiday!) because it’d be a great poolside read. I devoured the first half of the book in one evening, and was eager to pick it up the next day. So far so good.

Plotting issues started to become a big problem for me in the second half of the book. Stella’s story escalated from grief to elaborately Machiavellian scheming in a not particularly convincing way. As someone who has invested a lot of money in Fortress Uterus I can assure you it’s not that difficult to get knocked up, she really could have tried shagging around a bit first. Jason went from the usual level of unrealistic you can expect from a leading man (so handsome, so kind, so loyal, so amazing in bed and yet waiting for true love, so wealthy but so grounded etc etc) to just a bit of an idiot. Nevermind that is not in any way realistic that this guy would be consistently dumped by stone-cold career women when he says he wants a family (seriously, he is what every single woman I know is actively trying to meet). Are we really supposed to believe he was the only person in the UK if not the world to have seen the endless twitter, tabloid, TV, newspaper coverage of Walthamstow Wank Woman? And the biggest problem for me – Cam. This book was so baffled at what to do with an independent, successful, sexually active, loved, and childfree by choice woman that *SPOILERS after the jump!*

she had to be killed off. Not even as part of a plot, but in a stupid accident meaning that she is suddenly dead and the story can go back to where O’Porter is comfortable, with women jostling for sperm to have the babies they must have to be happy. It was a move I would expect from a Victorian novel – kill the wanton woman, she was just a plot device and she doesn’t get a happily ever after. Tara even coasts to her new career by feeding on the carcass of Cam’s business and reputation. Are you kidding me?! Cam existed purely to facilitate the life changes for Tara and poor tragic (redeemed) Stella. I was, and am, raging.

The book starts with a ‘definition’ of cow: “COW [n.] /kau/ A fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of cattle, used as a source of milk or beef… A cow is officially the name given to a heifer when it has had a calf. If you want a good piece of meat you need to go for the heifer because cows, having been destroyed by childbearing, do not a good steak make. Cows are destined to be in a constant hormonal state, either pregnant or producing milk. A heifer is a piece of meat, merely a potential source of produce. Some might say this is reflected in human society and the way it regards women.” This is supposed to set up our perception of the book in which our heroines become free agents, as per the tagline “Don’t follow the herd”. Which is all well and good – but not following the herd is not the same as freedom. Whatever Dawn O’Porter has written here, it’s not a free woman manifesto and it is absolutely not as supportive as it thinks it is of the growing demographic of women who are childfree by choice. There may be lip service to the contrary, but the resolution of this book sends the message it is perfectly ok not to have children – once you want to have them. For some of us, cows aren’t utilities but sentient beings with lives that matter to them. The Cows isn’t so much a freedom from the herd mentality as it is an attempt to start a new cooler herd less freaked out by masturbation on the fringes of the old one. That’s not enough for me.

The Cows by Dawn O’Porter is published by HarperCollins UK, HarperFiction and is available from Thursday April 6th 2017. I received an advanced copy from the publisher in return for an honest review.

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5 thoughts on “The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review

  1. I won’t be reading it, but the things you pick up on in your review interest me. Dawn O’Porter is a woman I want to like more than I do. She used to make TV programmes that on the surface of things were subjects worth exploring, but then she ruined them for me with her misfiring irreverent schtick. I think she thought she was quirky irreverent/cheeky, but for reasons I can’t put my finger on she came across as irritating. I wanted her to be a refreshing female voice in the world of male dominated documentary making, but instead found her a bit blah.

    Knowing a little bit about her from interviews she’s done in the past, promoting her TV shows, this novel sounds semi-autobiographical, with O’Porter split into three characters. I wonder if the arrival of her own child influenced her decision to kill Cam off.

    1. Really interesting Jan – that’s exactly how I feel about her! The interviews promoting this book have been a bit bizarre, and very focused on how she didn’t want to have children… it doesn’t match the way the book unfolds at all. It would certainly make sense that she changed who the ‘hero’ of the book was half way through (and moved her focus from Cam to Tara) to match her own changed circumstances.

  2. Excellent review. I enjoyed it well enough on a superficial level but the death was ridiculous as well as the fact that she got pregnant by accident. Accidental pregnancies I know happen but a lazy plot device. I’m all for not subscribing to stereotypes but I felt the point being constantly made that cam and Tara were ‘not like other girls’ became irritating and whilst their was some lip service paid at the end to the school gate mams of whom Tara had been so dismissive , it was all a bit too ‘cool girl’ for me. Tara and Cam were ultimately the most judgemental of them all .

    1. I completely agree with you… the death was what annoyed me most (because I am childless myself), but I can’t imagine any stay-at-home mum not being equally annoyed – because as you say they were mostly derided up until some dismissive lip service at the end. I think you have summed up for me exactly what my overall problem with this book was – you are right, the point was constantly being made that they were “not like other girls”. And I have always hated that – because what exactly do you think is wrong with girls that you have to be different from them?!

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