It’s been a while since so called chick lit has had its hay day, but writer Dawn O’Porter has endeavoured to launch chick lit 2.0, writing for the enlightened 21st century woman. Tara is a documentary maker and has a young daughter she adores, who she’s bringing up as a single parent. When a misjudged action that’s filmed without her permission is uploaded to Facebook and goes viral she’s demonised, humiliated and made into a national laughing stock. Her career is ruined, she has disgraced her family, her life is in tatters.
Cam’s runs a wildly popular lifestyle blog that boasts an enormous readership that fanatically follows her unashamed exploits and opinions. She is a modern woman, an avowed feminist activist, who has no desire to have children or to settle down into a committed relationship, and her readers love her for it. Why then, does such a successful writer get invited on to a radio show where she is almost exclusively vilified for her untraditional choice not to have children? In this version of our world, seen through the eyes of the three protagonists, Cam is the sole beacon of feminism, the only one who is seemingly brave enough to write about the shock and horror of deciding not to be relegated a baby maker. She is also the only one on the entire internet who comes to Tara’s defense, pointing out correctly that everyone who watches the embarrassing video that features Tara is complacent in not only bullying, but voyeurism, even abuse.
Stella is an avid reader of Cam’s blog, but is getting more fed up with her favourite writer’s opinions day by day, while struggling with serious issues of her own. A simmering rage, disappointment and loneliness send her on a spiral down a dangerous path, where she concocts a plan to get pregnant before her time runs out, while viciously trolling as a means to express the feelings that are threatening to undo her. This is an area of the story where O’Porter almost succeeds, in examining the nature of an internet troll, the effect of their hatred on their victim and on themselves. She also briefly explores Cam’s unease and feeling of vulnerability when she leaves the sanctuary of her luxury apartment and her life on-line for the real world. Because the major themes of motherhood and womanhood that the writer is concerned with are covered in this thread of the story, I wonder if it might have been better to get rid of the Tara story altogether and focus on the narratives of Cam and Stella.
Because there are definite moments of clarity, of insight and of wry humour I was disappointed with the book overall. It’s rather naive, almost immaturely written, and in a way feels like a first or second draft; some of the rambling, repeated treatises could have been tidied up, the more interesting characters like Stella given more focus; the clunky dialogue given another once over. The sentiment at the heart of The Cows is about women helping and supporting other women, no matter what their choices are. Admirable topics to approach and investigate, but not presented with enough coherence to make sense of. The world it takes place in just doesn’t seem like the world as I know it; less 21st century, more 1950, where women are expected to be tied to the kitchen sink and men in the workplace still get away with blatant, almost encouraged sexism.
And there might actually be the rub. The thing about The Cows is, while I didn’t necessarily like it, or feel like it was particularly well written, or even that the points being made were actually being made well, it did make me think about it for days afterwards. It made me think that some of my objections to the arguments being presented were coming from a place of privilege – I’ve never been made to feel like if I choose not to have children that I’d be less of a woman, or felt the pressure on me to live the life that is so blatantly expected of women in this book – marriage, children, even a rejection of one’s own individuality. But there are women in the (Western) world, in this day and age who do feel this trapped by other people’s expectations, so perhaps this book would be a good place to start questioning if going against these social norms is really that bad a personal decision. And if there is one clear message in the book it’s ‘don’t follow the herd’; so maybe make your own decision on whether it’s worth a read.
- Aoife B. Burke
- First Published in The Tuam Herald, 17 05 17