Dawn O’Porter has set this novel in the contemporary moment in Britain where women’s agency drives the narrative and now and then delivers The Cow’s three main protagonists at critical crossroads.
There’s Cam, the gorgeous thirty-something blogger who her whole life has revelled in her non-conformance to expected gender roles and feels so thoroughly ‘modern’ and empowered by her sexual candidness, body-confidence, successful career and very comfortable financial independence. At some she becomes the voice of ‘women who don’t want to have children’, a choice she also feels empowered by and one that she campaigns for. A bit self-righteous, she’s not very likeable at first. Cam is where you get the sense that O’Porter is perhaps trying really hard to make this book meaningful and serious, to the detriment that the plot seems a bit contrived and unrealistic in depicting her as this sickeningly and conveniently ultra-modern feminist, who does eventually butt heads with the troubled and bitter Stella.
Still deeply affected after losing her mother and then her twin sister to cancer, Stella is in a stagnant relationship with a pretty dreadful partner who’s unsympathetic to her often obsessive and unhealthy mourning habits. She clings to him because he’s lost his family too, but what Stella wants most is to have a family, to have a baby, to not be alone. She eventually decides to make a change and pursue motherhood, at any cost. Stella plots to realise her dreams between helping her archetypically handsome, rugged and down-to-earth boss, Jason, find the amazing woman he met in a bar some weeks before…
And so we meet Tara, a TV content producer in her middle forties who has a six year-old daughter from a one-night stand. She’s the strongest and funniest character, and honestly the reason I read page after page. Amidst concerns that she’s not spending enough time with her daughter, and the palpable judgement from the mothers’ group that waits at the school gates, Tara is also not opposed to some companionship and so ventures into mobile matchmaking and accidentally meets the wonderful Jason. The night ends wonderfully and they decide to go their separate ways but exchange numbers. Our Tara heads home feeling really (super) horny and, well…a lurking teen posts footage of her masturbating on a public train, leaving her rather exposed and ready to never leave her sitting room ever again. (This is a much more believable ‘girl on the train’ by the way).
As the video’s YouTube views increase, so too does Tara become a viral sensation, and the women’s lives begin to intersect and overlap more and more. In Stella’s desperation to have a baby and Cam’s ‘controversial’ views on motherhood amidst Tara’s seemingly bottomless shame in what she thought was a private moment of pleasure, O’Porter succeeds in having the guts to tackle all the complex and valid questions she dares to ask about how different women find value in their lives and pursue happiness whilst facing critique from society.
While I’m still critical of the supposedly perfect make-up of independent, modern Cam and hardworking and creative single mother Tara, in the end I reasoned that women’s rights to assert themselves is after all what The Cows is about. O’Porter does offer unexpectedly dynamic solutions and outlets for their frustrations and their triumphs, and Cam is even a lot easier to sympathise with in the end, an ending I suspect will have mixed reviews.
If you’re wondering what the novel has to do with cows, by the way, it’s near to nothing. The title comes from a conceptual moniker that Cam devises in her philosophy – ‘Don’t follow the herd.’ Apart from a provocative preface to the book that compares cows and society’s tendency to view women in terms of the reproductive role they should fulfil, you will not find the title subject on any of the pages. This is forgivable as the sometimes absurd minutiae and human interest is a lot more compelling, I think you’ll agree.
O’Porter does well to attempt to represent a very current working example of a modern woman or mother or daughter in 2017 who does not conform to prescribed gender roles. As middle class women they are able to more confidently exercise their agency, and it’s worth noting that their notions of liberty or social claustrophobia are not necessarily universal. I’m surprised our author didn’t introduce a queer female identity into her melting plot of this modern and non-conforming narrative.
Dawn O’Porter has endeavoured to represent and contend various feminine sensibilities in today’s slightly more progressive and at times surprisingly more archaic social environment. Her skill is crafting a story that has a light-hearted approach to serious and current discussions. The Cows is entertaining and engaging and unlike anything you’ve read before.
Reviewed by: Gabrielle Jacobs