A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions – blog tour (ARC review)

Author: Sheena Boekweg
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Genre: YA historical fiction
My rating:
4/5 stars

Take everything you knew about the 1920s, add in a secret network of women who manipulate the men in power to achieve social change, make it a little bit queer, write it with so many highlight-able lines, and you have…something pretty darn close to this book. The best way I can describe this book is that it is exactly what it is pitched as, and simultaneously way more than I expected. With strong female friendships, body positivity, ace and trans rep, and plenty of badass women (fighting with words and manipulation mostly, but still capable of fighting!), this was a seriously cool book.

The Plot

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.

You can purchase a copy HERE.

Review

What a weird-yet-wholesome book! Alternate history is always a little trippy to read, but this one was doubly so because it took such a substantial twist that, honestly, doesn’t seem too far-fetched: a network of women, inspired by Abigail Adams, who work together to subtly manipulate the men around them into enacting real social change. Obviously, since this work happens behind the scenes, the men and historians wouldn’t write about it–how could they know that their wives were giving secret hand signs, speaking in code, and shaping the future of the nation? Of course, America didn’t really have such a cool society, but it’s a nice thought anyway, right?

I didn’t know what to expect tone-wise from this book, but the final result was something even I couldn’t have predicted. There were elements that felt like a spy story, with the girls going on missions, sneaking around in trucks, and hiding political discussions in conversations about Chanel fashion. There were elements that reminded me of dating reality shows, with four girls vying for the heart of one eligible bachelor, with scheduled dates and scorecards and extra one-on-one time for girls who hit specific benchmarks–only, in this case, he has no idea these women are trying to woo him. It had some classic historical feminist story vibes (almost Little Women-esque), especially with Elsie as an aspiring writer, her poems interspersed between some chapters (side note: as a poet myself, I loved the inclusion of these!), and her own political ambitions and desire to be more pushing through as a constant undercurrent. It even leaned into some conventional YA tropes like the love triangle and the bad boy and the golden boy, though it did a great job of subverting those tropes as the story progressed. An odd mix, to be sure, but one held together by strong writing and a cast of lovable characters.

Speaking of characters: this was one of those books that really felt like the characters could be your friends or your sisters. From intellectual Elsie to rebellious Mira to sweet Bea to prickly Greta to fierce Iris, the central young women in this tale were all strong in their own ways, and even the least-likable of them still managed to win your heart. They had serious thoughtful debates about the role of women, motherhood, feminism, and even some hints at race and class issues, but they also would sometimes just let loose and be normal girls, sneaking out and having fun. Sometimes they would do some crappy things to each other–Elsie is especially guilty of this–but they were all able to own up, apologize, and do better. I like that: women aren’t perfect, and their occasional messiness really shone through here.

The characters were also a strikingly diverse group, and on this point, I feel like I need to bring up a couple things–some praise, and some qualms. One of the major characters has serious anxiety, including panic attacks (or “nerve attacks,” as she calls them, in accordance with the time’s parlance); this was solid representation, having an ordinarily confident character sometimes sidelined by her uncontrollable brain but always able to bounce back. Two of the girls, Elsie and Bea, are plus-sized, and while they do encounter some body-shaming from others, their own thoughts on each other are incredibly body-positive, frequently reminding each other just how beautiful they are. Iris is a trans woman (this is mentioned when she is first introduced, not a spoiler!), and while I can’t personally speak to the trans experience, I liked that the book reinforced more than once how her experience was in some ways very different from other women (e.g. no periods), but in other ways was exactly the same (like how, once she started passing as female, people stopped offering her all the coaching and opportunities she got when others thought she was a boy).

I was glad that the Society supported queer women–Iris talked about how they provided her with tools to help her pass, like clothing patterns and voice coaching lessons, and the women talk about setting women up on dates with other women–but the book also hinted at some less-progressive views in the Society, like being against women’s suffrage for a while. This clash in values seemed a little odd to me, but you know, alternate history–how much can I really talk about accuracy? I think it was getting at the idea that (a) organizations can be slow to change and can also be hypocritical, (b) they are capable of evolving, and (c) nothing is black-or-white, and even groups that do a lot of good can also perpetuate harm. Viewed through that lens, I liked it.

Okay, one big issue I had though: the ace rep was a little weird. I’m not going to complain about the inclusion of it (let’s be real, the “maybe I just have high standards?” thought process before discovering asexuality is really common and totally made sense here), or how the characters discussed it (they were super respectful!), but there were three parts that didn’t work for me. First, a small one, but the characters used the word “aromantic” while helping the ace character figure out her identity. While asexuality was recognized as early as the late 1800s, the term “aromantic” wasn’t coined until much later (around 2005, according to some sources). The anachronism threw me off a bit. I know, alternate history, but this was a pretty big shift. The second problem was how this character’s asexuality was hinted at a couple times in the beginning, discussed in a several-pages-long conversation in the middle of the book, and then never brought up again. This felt kind of like tokenization, which is not cool. And third, related to that previous one, was that the character’s asexuality in some ways seemed like it was just a plot point, not a part of genuine character development. The author needed to achieve a certain goal, and tossed in the ace rep to make it happen. Again, not a good look. I want more ace rep, obviously, but this was not an ideal way to get it.

But I digress.

Aside from its ace rep issues (and some other minor anachronisms–for every couple uses of old-time slang, there would be another place where a decidedly modern phrase cropped up), this was a really pleasant and very feminist story. It tackles sisterhood, friendship, female ambition, the patriarchy, the danger of angry men, and more, and even when it dips into some cliché buckets, the overall result is one that was a delight to read.

Tour Schedule

For more content on this book–reviews, author interviews, pretty pictures, and more–be sure to check out the other stops on the tour HERE! As an added incentive, the Instagram stops have a giveaway, which you should for sure check out if you want to win your own copy of this awesome read!

About the Author

Sheena Boekweg grew up reading books with tree branches peeking over her shoulder. Her novels Glitch Kingdom and A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions, both with Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, feature fat positive girls with ambitions, love stories, and sometimes battle axes. She’s a contributor to Every Body Shines, a fat-positive anthology publishing May 2021 with Bloomsbury, and is an alumni of the 2015 Pitch Wars Program and was a Pitch Wars mentor in 2017, 2018, and currently in 2020. Sheena believes that beauty is intrinsic and worth is unquestionable, and thinks you can’t solve all problems with food, but it will always help.

She is well-loved by a tall man with a great beard, her three kids, and the world’s most spoiled puppy. Visit her online at boekwegbooks.com, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SheenaBoekweg. She’s represented by Jessica Sinsheimer at Context Literary.

Thank you to Feiwel & Friends and Turn the Page Tours for providing me with an ARC of this book as part of my participation in this tour!

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