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 HowItIs.com 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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Published by HarperCollins on April 6th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Women, Humorous, General, Romance, Contemporary, Urban, Literary
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