The Cows by Dawn O’Porter

I’m a big fan of Dawn O’Porter. I’ve read and enjoyed both of her young adult novels, Goose and Paper Aeroplanes, and I absolutely adore her podcast, Get It On. When I heard that she was writing her first adult novel, I was pretty excited. It came into the shop a couple of days before my birthday, and when I found myself at work on the day I turned 23, I decided that if I had to work on my birthday, I was at least going to buy myself a book.

I’m going to start by talking about how much I despise the cover. It’s so, so rubbish. It looks like a book about kinky sex, to be entirely honest. I assumed that I would hate it less once I’d actually read the book and realised its relevance, but it has literally nothing to do with the content of the novel. Also, the hardback underneath is white, which is just inevitably going to get grimy. All round, not a fan of this book as a physical object.

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Onto the actual content. It’s the story of three women who aren’t fulfilling societal expectations: Cam, a blogger, Tara, a single mum and documentary maker, and Stella, a PA who is dealing with an enormous amount of personal grief as she struggles with the premature deaths of her mother and sister, as well as the possibility that she will be unable to have children.

Women rejecting expectations is a theme which I love, but I would underline the difference here between rejecting norms and not fitting into them through no choice of one’s own. The descriptions I had heard of The Cows definitely made it sound like the former, but on reading it I felt like there was a lot more of the latter. Stella deeply wants to be living a conventional life, but can’t. Tara has chosen to be unconventional in some ways (although I think we’re past the point where being a working mum is that unusual, it’s well-trodden territory at this point) and only really suffers when she does something which is certainly against norms, but is not actually a choice to reject norms – it’s very much not something she would choose to be public knowledge. Cam, meanwhile, sort of just blogs about how she lives this deeply unconventional life and doesn’t actually do all that much.

I guess the point there is that these kinds of expectations damage us all, whether we are trying to meet them or not. It’s not necessarily a flaw of the novel, it’s just a case of it having been mis-sold, and I think that the frustration with it not fitting in with my expectations of it damaged my enjoyment.

Personally, I found that I only really enjoyed Tara’s strand of the story. She felt the most textured to me, and we also saw the most of the other people in her life. I fully understood what motivated Tara and I identified with a lot of the choices she made. Stella, while I thought she was an interesting character who made a lot of worrying points about wider themes (by her behaviour, not in what she says), I can’t honestly say I enjoyed her plotline. It’s just so unpleasant to watch this woman fall apart, and she really is not likeable.

My real gripe with the book is with Cam. I don’t think I was supposed to like Stella, but with Cam it felt like the intention was for the reader to love her and particularly her blog posts, which are often included. I didn’t. I found her superior and obnoxious and arrogant, and honestly it was totally implausible that someone would make the amount of money we’re told she does (and that she frequently brags about) from blog posts that self-obsessed. Like I know that there are self-obsessed bloggers out there, but they are not marketing themselves at adult women, they’re for teens. If the posts which were included had been as brilliant as she’s described as being, it would have made sense but they just weren’t. On top of that, there was a lot of her moaning about how her family just didn’t understand her choices, but then there was so much judgement from her about their choices. She’s a woman in her thirties, but she reads like a teenager who thinks she understands everything about the world and no one else has any idea.

I did like the book, but it’s tricky because the three women have such separate stories (they do come together, but not much and never all three at once) that I have different opinions about each strand. When I add them all up, it equates to me liking the book, but there were definitely parts which I absolutely did not like. It’s unusual for me to read a novel which has such a variation in it, and I suspect that different readers, especially different women, would like or appreciate different characters.

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