While my book collection largely focuses on nonfiction, The Cows fits into my Surprise Picks category as a fiction work. As an author and researcher on the childfree choice for some time now, whenever I hear of a novel with a childfree character, I have to check it out.
Three Outside-the-Herd Lives
The Cows follows the lives of three women, Camilla, Tara and Stella, and how all three ultimately intersect. A writer, Camilla runs a popular, edgy blog filled with social, cultural, feminist commentary called HowItIs.com. When the story begins, Tara works as a TV documentarian, but loses her job due to a happening that serves as the centerpiece in the story. Stella is an assistant to an artist, and is greatly suffering the loss of her twin sister to cancer.
Camilla (Cam) lives ardently childfree. Tara has a daughter, and is raising her herself. As the story unfolds, we learn why Stella comes to fervidly want a child, and raise it herself.
A Childfree Main Character
While great that The Cows features a childfree character (which we need to see more of in novels) and her work puts the childfree choice and life right out there in the story, my initial take on Cam included her fitting into a common childfree stereotype. Like Samantha Jones on Sex in the City, O’Porter portrays Cam with ‘masculine’ characteristics; built like an amazon, she has big features and a strong sex drive. Cam feels she lacks the maternal gene and rejects relationship commitment. In real life, many childfree women would not fit this kind of description.
However, as the story evolves, we see Cam needs to have these aspects to her personality to make her character believable. She has to have these kinds of characteristics to do the blog job she does. In Myers-Briggs Type Indicator terms, she needs to be a Thinking type, and more than likely a Judging type to deal with the grief and pushback she gets from those who write her after she puts up provocative blog posts. Cam has to have a tough skin for her character to work.
Cam speaking her mind on her blog ultimately connects her to Tara, who gets slammed by society for doing something sexual that women just aren’t supposed to do. To tell you what she did and how the world came to know would be a major spoiler alert, as this incident drives so much of the story. O’Porter skillfully puts readers right up against questions like: What if a man did what Tara did? How would the story play out differently? Would what happened be a cornerstone in it at all?
The Cows especially becomes quite the page-turner when Cam and Tara finally meet, and without knowing it, Cam opens the door to Tara getting past the incident that almost ruined her life. At the end, we have hope that Tara will creatively end up getting Stella out of her emotional abyss since her sister’s death.
Going After What They Want
O’Porter cleverly organizes the book in scenes, not chapters, titled with the character focused on (Cam, Tara, Stella or Jason, Stella’s boss and ultimately Tara’s lover), and each written in first person. The book gives us three examples of women taking control of their reproductive lives and the judgments they get from doing so. Cam’s control means not becoming a mother at all. Tara and Stella’s story lines regarding motherhood play out very differently, and in ways that will provoke contemplation on whether taking that control can have its limits.
Wherever the contemplation lands, O’Porter takes us on a ride that shows there are “lots of different ways to be a woman and many ways to feel about being female”- and living as one. All three characters have the courage to make life choices that go against the female herd, and they ultimately bond outside that herd. Like I bet O’Porter hopes, I too wager The Cows will inspire women readers to do the same.