Written on 2019-03-04
Becoming is Michelle Obama's autobiography, begun soon after she and her family left the White House and proving an instant international bestseller after being published last year. The popularity is deserved: although her story is long, it is told with a warmth and openness that makes it an engaging and thought-provoking read. And that is before she even reaches the White House.
Michelle Obama was born to a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. Her family wasn't particularly poor, but they weren't rich either – her parents living frugally to enable their children to get a good education. Right from the start, she was an ambitious kid with a lot of drive. That she lived in a rapidly deteriorating neighbourhood, in a society that didn't have a particularly high opinion of blacks or women, only made her work harder. “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far” is an observation that crops up more than once.
But this isn't a whiny book. Although she calls it as she sees it, laying her finger on some pretty deep wounds in society, Mrs. Obama's book is much more than a personal tale of discrimination. It is about her family and the solid foundation they laid for her life. It is about the many opportunities she got and worked for, which led her through Princeton and Harvard into a comfortable position at a top-notch law firm. And it is about her realisation that climbing the social ladder is not as fulfilling as giving back to society.
This latter realisation was brought on in large parts by an intern who turned up at her office one summer – a young man called Barack Hussein Obama. In a delightful description of their unfolding romance, she gives deep and personal insights both into his character as well as into their relationship. Her characterisation of him explains a lot about the man behind the politician, and about why the man became the politician. It is interesting if not inspiring, but she never strays from her path to make this a book about him. This is her story.
And I am grateful for that, because her perspective is so much more varied. She is a professional in her own right: a smart, educated person, an activist and a leader. But she is also a wife, a lover, and a mother. Seen through her eyes, politics becomes more personal, the president a husband and father, and she herself a woman attempting the balance between fighting for her family and championing her causes.
Becoming is a book about family and a book about causes. It is also a book about the challenges of combining the two. With encouraging honesty, Michelle Obama writes about some of the struggles she and Barack faced in their marriage. At the same time, she writes about the joys of family life and the satisfaction of making an impact, of working towards “the world as it should be”. The tension between her devotion to her family and her desire to make a difference in the world is one that is never completely resolved, a theme resonating throughout her story.
It is, of course, brought to a head when her family does reach the White House. In the overwhelming maelstrom of the new normal, the now First Family has to adapt to a staggeringly loaded schedule, an omnipresent Secret Service, and an unsparing media. Her portrayal of life in the White House will be broadly familiar to anyone who has ever seen The West Wing, but all the more touching for having been written by the mother of two small girls in a world of extremes. Nonetheless, she neither loses her sense of humour nor her “common touch”, retaining a personal tone as she recounts national health campaigns and meetings with the Queen.
Finally, the book wraps up with a somewhat melancholy not-quite-happy-end. The family has survived eight years in the White House, her daughters are almost grown up, and she has a fair few policy successes to show for all her hard work. But the issue of her husband's successor weighs heavily on her. The hateful rhetoric and divisive influence appall and worry her, but there is not much she can do about it anymore. Thus, relief and regret, relaxation and premonition go hand in hand as the story closes.
So what did I think of this memoir? As should be noticeable by now, I have a very positive opinion of it on the whole. Although I started reading it out of curiosity for an insider's view of the US presidency, it soon showed me a woman who was more than “just” the First Lady. In its portrayal of so many different faces of America – the South Side, the corporate law firm, the political rally – it showed me worlds I had never much thought about before. It cemented my respect for an extraordinary couple, both of whom are extraordinarily gifted and extraordinarily hard-working. And it inspires me to keep thinking about “the world as it should be”.
Of course, it is not a perfect book. For all her honesty and candour, one cannot shake off the question of what Michelle Obama did not choose to share with us readers. She can occasionally come across as just a little bit too perfect. And one ought to keep in mind that the stories we tell about ourselves are always narratives – told with the end in mind, interpretations of history construed after the fact.
But I think these are minor quibbles. Becoming tells the story of a remarkable lady, and it tells it well. It is engrossing and inspiring, and, for all its 420 pages, well worth the read.