Review: The Cows, Dawn O’Porter

With heavy billing and a hefty amount of hype, The Cows is clearly a book with high ambitions.  It’s certainly an interesting idea – transferring the debate over whether or not a woman is defined by her ability to procreate down to the populist chick lit genre.  I had to raise an eyebrow though when the book kicked off with a dictionary definition of what a cow is but which fell into the common misconception that a heifer becomes a cow after giving birth to a calf.  Despite my family being two generations away from our farming roots, I still know the truth – a heifer remains a heifer until it has its second calf.  This book’s battle cry is a Twitter hashtag, #Dontfollowtheherd and while the cow metaphor is not quite thought out, it does capture something of the tightrope that it can be in attempting to stay out of trouble in the electronic age.

The novel centres around three women, Cam, Tara and Stella.  None of them felt quite fleshed out, with more of a feeling of them having been workshopped rather than truly explored.  Stella is repeatedly referred to as ‘spiky’, Tara is the Cool Girl who prefers pubs to bars and Cam is obviously O’Porter’s Voice of God with her blog posts on clearly intended to be taken as Gospel.

There have been so many books written by female journalists and comedians on the subject of modern womanhood and given how clearly Cam was an author-surrogate, I did rather wonder why O’Porter hadn’t just written one of those.  It was strange too how a novel which claimed to celebrate non-conformity could have characters who were so interchangeable.  Every piece of clothing they ever put on is ‘silky’, every guy has to be ‘cute’ – indeed the word cute is seriously over-represented.  This is very much feminism for white women who pluck their eyebrows.

It was strange to read that O’Porter wrote this after herself giving birth.  I am in full agreement that a woman can be complete without progeny or indeed without a partner.  I even agree with Cam that it does tend to be women who put each other into boxes rather than the men.  What I was less comfortable with was the rather vicious way women who did not follow The Way Of Cam were depicted.  Sophie is oppressed by her husband in exchange for his cash.  Stella becomes a bonkers sperm-thief in her desperate scramble for motherhood.  Mel is a bundle of varicose veins who urinates when she sneezes.  There is little chance of missing the point here.

There were moments of warmth, with the character of Jason offering a ray of sunshine in a novel full of otherwise fairly depressing relationships.  Cam writes about a relationship which she celebrates for its lack of emotional intimacy, Stella is dumped directly before needing treatment to prevent cancer, all the married men appear to lust openly after Tara much to the dismay of their wives and Tara herself … well, she enjoys herself on a train and then gets slut-shamed through the media after a mobile phone video capturing the experience goes viral.

A lot of O’Porter’s arguments felt a little off.  It feels childish that Cam’s sisters assume she is a lesbian because she is single.  Maybe this is naive – when I was twenty-three, my female line manager asked me this question because I wore jeans rather than a dress to a work night out.  Still, your sisters in their forties?  Really?  Then there’s extremely thinly-veiled attack on Jenni Murray of Woman’s Hour where the Jenni Murray surrogate is labelled a frumpy bat.  O’Porter seems to have missed the point of a programme which has been running for decades and which has tackled a host of woman’s issues with far greater nuance and depth than O’Porter is likely to ever manage.

At the same time though, I’m not sure how far O’Porter intended her work to be taken seriously – Tara is at one point questioned by a pair of police officers who are actually called Flowers and Potts.  I waited for the punchline there and it never came.

I also don’t quite know what I was expected to think of Tara’s train escapade.  I would think that it was absolutely disgusting if a man was caught masturbating on a train, whether he thought he was alone or not – but does O’Porter want me to think that Tara is somehow liberated when she does it?  The issue for me there is the public shaming.  I remember a high school residential where a boy in my year was captured doing the same thing after lights-out thanks to an eagle-eared roommate and a flash camera.  The one print of the photo was passed round the class with massed ughs and dismay, but then it was put away and we all moved on.  Thanks to the Internet, things are more complicated. Cam grandly tells someone that in enjoying Tara’s humiliation, they are failing at feminism.  I don’t think that’s the point there – I wouldn’t watch that video in the same way that I didn’t watch the Tulisa one or look at the photos during the iCloud hack.  I was brought up better than to glory in someone else’s humiliation.  It’s a decency thing.

The question over whether it is wrong to have a child because you want one, potentially without consulting the potential father – that’s more complex.  As someone whose father was kept fully apprised of their existence but who decided before my birth that family was not for him, I don’t think the child is necessarily missing out but I do know there will always be questions.  Every situation is different but featherweight weight fiction such as this isn’t really the place to get into all of this.

A lot of the writing here is a little clunky and repetitive – Cam is referred to as The Face of Childfree Women with tiresome regularity and O’Porter has a little way to go on developing her dialogue.  I think the point she was trying to make was that there is another way of being and if you’re not a mother, you will still be ok.  That is something that I wholeheartedly applaud.  I think with Stella, O’Porter was also trying to capture how dangerous it can be to hold on to a dream like this.  Again, while I think the example was a little on the extreme, I would agree with this.  It’s just that while telling her readers to not follow the herd, I have a feeling that we are supposed to follow Dawn O’Porter instead.  While wearing something silky of course.

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The Cows: The hottest new fiction release that everybody is talking about! by Dawn O’Porter
Published by HarperCollins on April 6th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Women, Humorous, General, Romance, Contemporary, Urban, Literary
Pages: 464
ISBN: 9780008126049

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

17 thoughts on “Review: The Cows, Dawn O’Porter

  1. I assume that Dawn O’Porter is the Dawn Porter who married Chris O’Dowd, and so I wonder if her success in getting this published is connected to the two of them having a degree of celebrity status?

    I then have to admit, almost shamefacedly that despite growing up in the country and my father being an agricultural merchant I was unaware of the definition of a heifer (if he was still with us I would be verbally chastised for this!)

    The book clearly attempts to make some important points on the status of women, and the general cultural views on sexuality and what it means to be a ‘woman’ (there are similar issues for men too.) Your own experience of being questioned about your sexuality based on what clothes you wore is a good example.

    The incident of the man caught by one of the characters masturbating on a train (and your own anecdote of school days) reminded me of a similar event of my own – in about 1966 when I was 13 a fellow pupil sitting in the same row as me at the back of the class pulled out from his trousers his erect penis, I think I was so surprised only because I had never seen one before. But as in your anecdote it was soon over, as with the approach of our form teacher to the back of the room he made himself decent again. Unlike today, it was never mentioned or even laughed about other than by the perpetrator and his closest friend who sat beside him.

    Perhaps, as you suggest, the whole thing is a satire with the intent to make people question their own prejudices and assumptions.

    1. I’m not sure – this isn’t her first novel and other people do seem to like her work, I just found her very one-note. Unfortunate given that I was asked to be on the promotional tour (slight headache to decide what to do from abroad!) I didn’t feel that the author was really ready to consider why other people’s choices might be so different to her own. And also that some people really are happy to do things differently. And that she should lay off Jenni Murray – I saw what she tried to do there and I didn’t like it.

      Oh well – the moral to the story is don’t agree to review a book when you’re planning on being in a different hemisphere and you haven’t even got round to reading it yet!

  2. Thanks for your review because you’ve put into words what I couldn’t quite manage. It’s not that I dislike the book, but none of the characters are believable. Some of the conversations that happen make me think, ‘sorry, who would speak to someone that way in a professional environment? Or in the playground?’ Also the fact that I live in London and it is based in London makes me wonder if O’Porter has been here in a while. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen. Things that go viral get forgotten almost as quickly, no-one in that situation would ‘trend’ on twitter for more than a day. Honestly, I just felt disappointed with it. It just all feels a bit contrived to make a point which I’m still not sure I have understood.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that – I agree completely with what you said about the lack of professionalism or indeed maturity in the way the characters interact. And yes, viral news stories have the life cycle of a mayfly – Tara’s storyline is daft. I really wanted to like this but I ended up feeling quite uncomfortable that O’Porter was trying to put this forward as ‘How It Is’. It doesn’t resemble my life, or indeed that of anyone I know.

  3. There was so much that annoyed me about this book; the clunky dialogue, the one dimensional characters, the complete lack of understanding of how parents operate (honestly – who stays with their 6yo at a party??). But I perservered. I wish I hadn’t. To end a story with one female protagonist dead before she has an abortion and another finding redemption in the arms of a man and trying for a baby was the complete antithesis of what most people would consider to be feminism.

    1. I’m so glad it wasn’t just me! The whole thing felt like a half-baked idea that hadn’t been thought through properly and the dialogue was awful! And no, it didn’t seem like feminism to me either. I always worry when I have to post a negative review so thank you for commenting to confirm I wasn’t alone 🙂

  4. As an avid reader of many genres/writers and having been immersed in several fabulous authors- most notably Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Joe R Lansdale, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel over the past year- this is the first book by Dawn O’Porter that i’ve tried to read having picked it up to ‘ring the changes’.
    Regardless of themes/author intentions- I really struggled to engage with this from the beginning.
    I nearly gave up at page 13 then 20, but plugged on mainly out of politeness; afterall, the fly-leaf reviews had been sparkling.
    I must have been reading a different book somehow and finally gave up altogether halfway down page 54. I just couldn’t persevere with the ‘clunky’ (good word) dialogue and flat characters any longer.

    1. I’ll be honest – I’ve never regretted being on the publicity tour for a book as much as I did with this one. I remember starting into it when I was on holiday and that rising sense of horror – oh no, it’s really bad. She seems like a nice woman in interviews, I wish her all the best, but this book really needed some work. It felt like something that was still being workshopped, not a completed idea. It’s just weird and awkward – alas, I was not a fan!

  5. I agree with a lot of your review, I saw it was highly rated before reading it but I couldn’t warm to any of the characters – I especially agree that it feels like they haven’t been thought through properly. It’s the kind of book I would have normally given up on but the ratings preserved and I expected it to get better but it didn’t really, so glad to see I’m not the only one who thought this !

    1. Yeah I have to admit that the high ratings confused me on this one. I respect the fact that other people enjoyed it but I really didn’t. It was just so strange. I could really imagine her going into the publishers and talking over her idea but it never really felt that she got past that stage and really worked on tightening things up. Shame really!

  6. I’ve just finished this book (thank god it’s over) and am so relieved to find these reviews and see I’m not the only one who really disliked it! I found myself cringing most of the way – the conversations and situations were just so unrealistic. The whole time I was subconsciously reading it in a kind of sarcastic, over the top voice – it felt like an impression of a bad book! I like the idea of women’s lives intertwined and always love the theme of feminism, but none of this novel sat right with me and to be honest it was painful to keep reading. The tip of the iceberg really was when Tara was contacted by L’Oreal – really?!?!

    1. I have to admit, this is a book that I really had to stop in several places and wonder ‘Is this for real?’ Awkward given I’d already agreed to be on the publicity tour – one of the trickier moments of my blogging life. It just felt really … weird. It felt like an idea that hadn’t been fully worked through, the characters didn’t feel real, they were just types and the dialogue was ridiculous. And the whole hashtag of ‘dontfollowtheherd’ was so absurd – if you’re operating via a hashtag, you are literally following a herd!

  7. I loved this book, there was a good sense of realism to the reactions should you get caught in a storm, I could relate a lot. Whilst I was not happy with what happened to the Cam character I t was clear why. I felt the ending was rushed a little but overall a good 7/10. Dawn O’Porter, whilst not to everyone’s cup of tea, has a background in documentaries, to suggest it is on the back of her husband is very masochistic. To read the reviews here that it is close to garbage all following the original post, you seem to be following the herd.

    1. Did you mean ‘misogynistic’ rather than ‘masochistic’? Masochistic means enjoying pain … although I have to admit that I did find this book quite a painful read. Funny thing is that two people actually bought copies of this through my affiliate links so I guess the review inspired some people to check it out? I think Dawn O’Porter seems like a lovely woman but this book was a bit addled. I don’t think that the comment section shows people ‘following the herd’ – what is interesting is that this review has been shared by a few different people in a few different places as being reflective of their own impressions of this book which has in turn led to quite a high number of hits. I think sadly I was not alone in thinking that the Cows was … well … crap! Have a lovely weekend!

  8. Well I’m pretty late to the party with this book but I really do love Dawn O’Porter so I was quite excited for this read. I hate to say it, really I do but I will never get back the time I invested reading that book!! The characters were the most unlikeable bunch I’ve come across. By the end of the book, I actually couldn’t have cared less if they all had broken necks. I think the book was trying to be too clever but was totally drowning in a really bland story with truly awful characters. How it got so many good reviews astounds me.

    1. I really didn’t understand the positive reviews either. But to be fair this review gets quite a lot of traffic so many people seem to agree with my conclusion. The characters were so ridiculous – they were workshopped though rather than seeming like anything resembling real people. Dawn O’Porter seems lovely in interviews but I’ll never read anything by her again 🙁

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