Right off the bat, Sheena Boekweg’s A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions (Feiwel & Friends) is a real go-getter of a novel: five main characters are introduced in the first two pages, the stakes instantly raised as they attempt to save a woman from her abusive husband. The year is 1926, and our fearless friends belong to the First Ladies’ Society, a secret organization that takes down toxic men — and installs influential women beside the ones they deem worthy.
Our narrator, Elsie, is a voracious reader, skilled poet, and “Wife-to-be” within the Society. When the chance arises to seduce a future president, Elsie jumps at it; having always lived in the shadow of her older brother, she believes this is the ticket to her own success. Elsie rounds up her friends and they embark on their new mission, each theoretically getting her own shot at the target, but with Elsie determined to win his affections … and the coveted title of First Lady.
AMBITION SOWS CONFLICT — AND THIS BOOK PULLS NO PUNCHES
The ensuing internal and external conflicts, as Elsie wrestles with what she wants and clashes with friends over her loyalties, are the most compelling parts of the book. These conflicts rear their heads early on; crucially, from the start of the mission, it’s obvious that Elsie’s friend Bea is the best match for the target, Andrew. Why, then, does Elsie not bow out and let Bea have him?
Because of her own ambitions — a complicated brew of noble goals and selfish desires. This is the main source of Elsie’s internal battles, and for many external conflicts as well; there were times where I deeply disliked Elsie for acting on what she considered a greater purpose, but which was clearly more self-serving. The worst is when she undermines Andrew’s dates with her friends — even Bea — because she believes that she, Elsie, can achieve the most for the Society and womanhood as a whole. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to realize she’s making up excuses to justify what she simply wants to do.
And yet, I had to admire the brutal honesty of these scenes. Haven’t we all put ourselves before others, turned our backs on our friends, and acted deplorably, even if only for a moment? What matters is that we recognize our mistakes and try to do better — which is exactly how Elsie proceeds. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl caught between passion and pragmatism, between personal and collective triumph, between love and friendship; it’s only natural she would make a few missteps. And in the end, I was glad that her character wasn’t morally unimpeachable.
BUT LEAVES US WANTING FOR NUANCE IN OTHER REALMS
This careful approach to Elsie’s character flaws makes Boekweg’s lack of nuance in other areas a bit puzzling. True, no one can say that she fails to include a range of identities and experiences in this book — and the messages of body positivity infused throughout the book are very well-done (both Elsie and Bea are plus-sized women). Boekweg also neatly preempts any accusations of inaccuracy by making A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions an alternate history of sorts, with different presidents and social mores as influenced by the Society.
But discussions of things like gender and sexual orientation come across as more didactic than character-building. At one point, a character describes her disinterest in physical relationships and it’s suggested that she’s asexual — at which point the other characters jump in with how many ways there are to love, the resources they can provide her, and so on. All this is resolved within two pages, tied off so the story can keep moving.
Instances like this (there are several others) give the impression that the author’s checking off boxes to signal inclusivity and progressiveness, rather than exploring each character’s journey in a genuine way. Perhaps I’m too picky about my representation, but I like my female characters a little messier, less all-figured-out; more Elsies would have been very welcome.
I have a few other bones to pick with the subplots, which also wanted for subtlety. Suffice to say, one character was such a transparent symbol for something, it made me roll my eyes. Likewise, another character undergoes a tragedy seemingly to create a “dark night of the soul” moment for Elsie, but it throws the whole thing off tonally. The rest of the novel, despite Elsie’s fraught ambition-wrangling, is relatively lighthearted.
WHEN BOEKWEG GETS IT RIGHT, IT’S POSITIVELY BERRIES
Indeed, this book shines when it’s not taking itself too seriously. The delightful twenties slang (“bee’s knees” or “positively berries” to mean superb, “jeepers” as the go-to exclamation), the double-meaning-laden secret codes, and the banter among the girls (Elsie says her friend Mira flirts with boys “like the Kraken crushing the Nautilus”) were my favorite parts of A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions.
Less frothy but just as enjoyable were the poems that surfaced every few chapters, each an insightful glimpse into Elsie’s truest self. “They told me / I would be a shadow / of a statue I would have to build,” begins one, about her destiny as a Wife-to-be. “What if we pulled the statues down / And made every person build themselves?”
It’s nice to see a writing-inclined character actually writing, and Boekweg cleverly gives her narration a poetic slant as well. Elsie describes a boy’s hands as quick-moving fog, a girl’s eyes as full of unbuilt cities, and her fellow Wives-to-be as “roses clipped before they’ve fully bloomed.” These were the lines that kept me going through the clunkier descriptions of sociopolitical issues and the infrastructure of the Society.
All in all, A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions is a slightly uneven endeavor, excelling in some areas while falling short in others. This is perhaps to be expected from the author’s first foray into historical fiction, and especially with something so lofty as an alternate history — it’s impossible to unpack everything in the space allotted. But on that matter, I arrive at the same conclusion as Elsie: it’s better to be ambitious than cautious, and I am excited to see where Boekweg’s ambitions take her next.