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.

Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


New 'treaty' for Aboriginal empowerment owes much to New Zealand Maori
75169 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z World

New 'treaty' for Aboriginal empowerment owes much …

by Bernard Lagan

It's an overdue voice for Aboriginals and was wildly misinterpreted by those who should know better.

Read more
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band revisited
75317 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Music

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band revisited

by Graham Reid

Half a century ago the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Graham Reid considers the album and its reissue.

Read more
Small business by the numbers – why the sector defies generalisation
75517 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Small business

Small business by the numbers – why the sector def…

by Rob O'Neill

Small businesses are vital to New Zealand’s economy, but efforts to understand them continue to fall short.

Read more
What to do and see in Wellington
74641 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Sport

What to do and see in Wellington

by Noted

You lucky little blighters! Wellington really is a fantastic place to… well, do almost anything.

Read more
One smart way to win the America's Cup is to dare to be different
75588 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Sport

One smart way to win the America's Cup is to dare …

by Paul Thomas

Team New Zealand’s grinders use their legs; Oracle’s use their arms, as did the grinders on every other boat that took part in the America’s Cup regat

Read more
On Radio: July 1, 2017
75492 2017-06-26 10:18:52Z Radio

On Radio: July 1, 2017

by Fiona Rae

The best of the week.

Read more
Crossword 1033 answers and explanations
Winston Peters: Kiwis in regions should get their fair share
75466 2017-06-26 08:35:11Z Politics

Winston Peters: Kiwis in regions should get their …

by Benedict Collins

Winston Peters wants New Zealanders in the regions to benefit more from the wealth they help generate.

Read more