Book review: The Cows by Dawn O’Porter

by Elizabeth Heritage / 14 June, 2017

Dawn O’Porter. Photo/Alamy

A novel attempt to infuse chick-lit with feminism.

The Cows opens inauspiciously with a publicity hashtag – #dontfollowtheherd – and an epigraph that contains the horribly clunky line “There are many types of women and every effort is needed for a woman not to be seen just as a heifer or a cow.”

Thankfully, the awkward women-as-cows metaphor is then dropped. The Cows is a novel by British journalist, TV presenter and fashionista Dawn O’Porter and is her first foray into writing fiction for adults.

Set in contemporary London, it follows the lives of three women: Tara, a documentary film-maker and single mother; Cam, a high-profile child-free lifestyle blogger; and Stella, whose twin sister and mother have both died from breast/ovarian cancer (O’Porter lost her own mother to breast cancer; one of her previous books, The Booby Trap, was published in aid of breast cancer charities).

The characters navigate various issues: abortion, fertility, sexuality, slut-shaming, motherhood, friendship, grief, family conflict, mental illness. The key event that sets off the plot is when Tara, believing she is alone, masturbates on a train. She is filmed by a stranger without her consent. The film is uploaded to YouTube and goes viral, and intense public shaming and trial by social media ensue.

The good news is that, following the epigraph, the prose style gets better, in that it stops being annoyingly bad and becomes merely uninteresting. The bad news is the characters are little more than avatars for various issues and, in the case of Cam, horribly smug: “‘I basically just solved feminism,’ Cam says to herself as she reads [her own] blog post back. She’s on a roll … she’s a hero.”

O’Porter is also weirdly uncomfortable about lesbians. She has her female characters develop what are clearly crushes on one another, but then hurriedly gives them male sexual partners and has them declare how not-gay they are, to avoid any queerness.

There’s also some appalling fat shaming. The main characters are pretty because they are thin, and the body of one of Cam’s sisters (who has given birth to several children and is about a size 18) is presented as ugly, bordering on disgusting.

To give O’Porter her due, she is choosing to use her significant media platform to talk to and about women, albeit women like her (First World, middle-class, straight, thin and wealthy). Attempting to infiltrate chick-lit with feminism was a worthy aim. But it turns out the publicity hashtag is right – don’t follow this herd.

The Cows, by Dawn O’Porter (HarperCollins $34.99)

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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