Review: A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions by Sheena Boekweg

  • Title: A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions
  • Author: Sheena Boekweg
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Intended audience: young adult
  • Format read: eARC
  • Publisher: Feiwel Friends
  • Pub date: June 1, 2021
  • Trigger warnings: fire, death, death of a child, fatphobia
  • Representation: fat mc, asexual side character, trans side character
  • Rating: 1.5/5 stars

I received an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Behind every powerful man is a trained woman, and behind every trained woman is the Society. It started with tea parties and matchmaking, but is now a countrywide secret. Gossips pass messages in recipes, Spinsters train to fight, and women work together to grant safety to abused women and children. The Society is more than oaths—it is sisterhood and purpose.

In 1926, seventeen-year-old Elsie is dropped off in a new city with four other teenage girls. All of them have trained together since childhood to become the Wife of a powerful man. But when they learn that their next target is earmarked to become President, their mission becomes more than just an assignment; this is a chance at the most powerful position in the Society. All they have to do is make one man fall in love with them first.

I did honestly debate a bit whether or not I wanted to post this review. In some sense, I feel a bit bad taking the time to so thoroughly single out a book and say “I did not like this, and here’s why!” However, I haven’t seen that many thorough reviews of this book, and I genuinely think that if you are considering reading it, seeing my opinions might be helpful in making that decision. Also, like, I already wrote most of this for my NetGalley feedback form, so I might as well. (Okay, that’s a bit of a lie, I wrote the first version of this for my feedback form, then revised it twice to actually make it comprehensible.)

The thing about A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions is that I really wanted to like it! I first saw it on bookstagram at the beginning of the year, and I thought it looked like a promising YA historical fiction, something I’m always looking for more of. I was interested in the fact that it had a fat protagonist, and I was intrigued by a set-up that presented both sisterhood and a competition between four girls. I wanted to see how it played with the tension between those two things and how what appeared to be a progressive voice would challenge the trope of women competing to win a man. Unfortunately, I don’t think A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions lived up to its potential, and I found it to be thoroughly mediocre, if not annoying and boring at times. I even found myself skimming at the end, which I never do.

I believe this book is a classic case of an author biting off more than they can chew. Or perhaps a book that would have been great if it had gone through a couple more revisions. The ideas were all there, it just wasn’t put together very well. There were a lot of weaknesses to it, but overall it stemmed from the fact that the writing just wasn’t strong enough.

One big issue I had was the characterization; it was severely lacking. Only Elsie, the main character, and maybe Mira actually felt like real people, the rest of the characters were pretty two-dimensional. And even then, I didn’t think Elsie’s characterization was very good! The whole book hinges on this idea that Elsie is incredibly ambitious, but we’re missing the motivation and drive behind that ambition. As far as I could tell, Elsie wanted to be president simply to prove that she could. And obviously women can and should be president, as well as anything else they want. The words said that Elsie was ambitious because she wanted to prove that exact point, but the way she treats those around her say that she was ambitious because she wants to prove that she is the best.

Elsie’s biggest flaw is that she so desperately wants to prove herself to others. To her mother, her brother, other women, other men. And not just prove herself, she needs to be the best. The greatest. But instead of doing something with this flaw, Elsie is deprived of any character development. This book obviously wanted to show that it is okay for women to be ambitious, which is great! But a better story would allowed Elsie’s motivations to change during the course of the book. Her drive would cease to be her need to be better, and instead be her passion for what she was doing, or her wish to help people. While she does say she wants to do it for others, I never actually felt that from her.

Because here is another issue of the book: besides a couple references to “the great war” and suffragettes, I never would have known this was supposed to take place in 1926. It could have been set literally any time in the twentieth century. This is disappointing both because it means there were no ~vibes~ and because in a book that attempted to feature political issues, the 1920s are ripe for discussion! I think it would have been fascinating if social issues specific to the 1920s had been incorporated into the political discussions of the book. The working conditions of female factory workers! Child labor laws! Immigration laws! The living conditions of immigrants in the cities! It would have utilized the setting, made the political discussions in the book more nuanced, and we could have potentially had a more socially aware Elsie, fighting for progressive change. I’m talking a main character whose motivations are more about fighting for the underprivileged and less #girlboss.

I could talk more about the way the book handled its feminist issues (it jerkily switched into preachy paragraphs where it was incredibly obvious A Point Was Being Made), and from there the prose (there wasn’t a distinct voice), but instead I want to talk a bit about the plot.

The plot was boring. In my opinion, it needed to be tighter. We start by being introduced to the girls and the society, a hidden organization comprised solely of women who pull the strings of politics behind the scenes. Then there’s the assignment: “a lifelong.” It’s revealed that the girls will be attempting to win the heart of a future president, and many girls decide to turn down the mission. Just our four main girls remain. And then we spend the first HALF of the book painstakingly describing each of the girls’ first meetings with the boy. Literally just their first meetings. It’s slow. I take that back, we do get something else: a completely idiotic plot point with Elsie falling for a boy she isn’t supposed to after spending a few hours with him.

And then the plot just focuses on what I think are the wrong things. We get a lot of Elsie’s internal monologue, stymying the plot progression. Instead of punishing Elsie for the horrible way she treats her supposed friends and mother, the narrative chooses to punish her for falling for the wrong boy. Aside from the fact that I don’t think this second boy plotline should have been there at all, it rejects analysis of Elsie’s real flaws to focus on her bad instalove decision.

There are a few large plot points in the second half of the book, but it still honestly felt like nothing happened. The narrative never really went anywhere. There isn’t a lot of build up in the first half, which means there isn’t really anywhere to go in the second. So there’s no progression, no movement, and instead a couple of jarring events before the book closes. All of this makes for a very boring narrative.

And that is just really what A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions comes down to: it was boring. It should have been interesting, but the writing wasn’t good enough to make it so. The plot needed a major reworking, the prose needed help, and the characterization was sorely lacking. Although some might be able to enjoy it, I can’t say I recommend this book.

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