Johanna Venho
Publication date
Format info
261 pages

The First Lady

Ensimmäinen nainen

The story of Sylvi, on Kekkonen’s arm.

The First Lady is a historical novel about Sylvi Kekkonen. It’s a story about a woman who finds herself and her voice as a writer and hopes that after living one life, there’ll still be time to start another.

“In many countries the First Lady can’t even travel alone. – I’m not going to start asking permission for that kind of thing.” Sylvi Kekkonen’s public position concealed many aspects of Sylvi, who was radical; both shy and brave; gentle and biting; a mother who sought safety and a rebellious feminist. Occupying a demanding position, she maintained her independence and kept her own friends.

When one of her most important friends, the writer Marja-Liisa Vartio, dies in the summer of 1966 Sylvi leaves for the peace and quiet of her summer cottage Katerma. Elsewhere Sylvi’s other friend, sculptor Essi Renvall, examines a portrait of Sylvi and wonders how she’ll ever be able to portray Sylvi’s complexity in a sculpture. Can you ever truly know someone else and what if you don’t have the opportunity to take your own path?

Johanna Venho (b. 1971) is an award-winning poet and writer. The First Lady is Venho’s first historical novel. In Sylvi’s story, Venho contemplates a woman’s life and identity, as well as the limitations imposed on her self-expression, by carefully weaving fact and fiction together.

Prizes and nominations

2019, nominated for the Finlandia Prize

Rights sold

Estonian (Varrak)


Venho’s beautiful, vivid writing prompts the reader to consider what someone in the President’s Wife’s position cannot, or does not dare, to publically disclose. In this book Sylvi Kekkonen steps out from her husband’s shadow and takes centre stage, a position she was unable to occupy during her lifetime.” Aamulehti newspaper

This book proves that Johanna Venho has a deep understanding of Sylvi’s life. The structure of the novel is clear and well defined. It doesn’t meander around the story, but concentrates on what is relevant to the book. Its literary merit is refreshingly different from many other historical novels.” Jorma Melleri, Uusi Suomi newspaper

“Venho’s grasp is subtle. Still, she lays the pain, shame and rebellion bare and tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.” Itä-Savo newspaper

“This plausible and sensitive story’s narration is linguistically beautiful. It truly brings Sylvi Kekkonen’s character to life. It’s a book about loneliness and making the kinds of life choices that you’ll have self-justify over and over again. But despite all of her pain, Sylvi’s warmth and forgiveness shine through. Listening to Sylvi’s fictional voice, which is both smart and selfless, is important.” Announcement of the Finlandia Prize Jury, 2019