Book Review: Michelle Obama's Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown, 2018. 426 pages
Source: Hardback given me by a friend
An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.
In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.
In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.
My Review: I have to admit to being a little intimidated about reviewing a book as big as this. Still, I read it, and I have my opinions and reactions. That's what I'm going to share.
Let's start by getting something out of the way: while very readable, even easy to read, I don't consider this a work of great literature. Of course, that's not what it's meant to be, but I needed to get that out of the way. The quality of the writing is more than competent, engaging, and almost entirely beside the point. Nor am I going to either make this about the politics or ignore the politics entirely. I was, and am, a fan of the Obama presidency, especially in contrast to what we have now. I also spent those 8 years admiring our good-looking, classy First Family, which is neither here nor there.
Michelle Obama hasn't written the book to talk about politics, either. In fact, she makes it very clear that she was not and is not a politician, which is a long way from saying that she's apolitical. She just spent her life before Barack believing that there were better ways to change the world than diving into the political system. That he felt rather differently is both obvious, and at the heart of her examination of her life and their marriage.
As much as anything, the book is an exploration of an marriage of opposites, of an ambitious woman who never wanted the spot-light, and a man who saw a way to change the world by jumping into that light (I was happy to see that he didn't do that without serious consideration by the whole family about what that would entail). How they negotiated the stresses political life put on the marriage and the family was the core of the story.
Another fascinating aspect of the book, however, was the constant struggle to maintain something resembling a normal life for two girls growing up in the White House. We get an inside look at the ways in which the life of the First Family is constrained, and the challenges to both the parents and the Secret Service when some members of that family are children who need to be allowed to be children--who then grow into teens, who need to be teens. Honestly, the surprise isn't that the girls were occasionally caught on camera looking less than thrilled to be there. The surprise is that they didn't rebel entirely and run away to a south sea island or something!
Less overtly discussed, but still present through the book, is the issue of what being married to the president does to the career of a highly educated and ambitious woman. I hadn't really thought about that, but you can't just go on being a lawyer for a non-profit and pretend your husband isn't the leader of the free world (or maybe you can. Melania Trump seems to mostly ignore her position as FLOTUS; if she manages to chart a course for the president's spouse that allows a wider range of possibilities, something good may come out of this).
The book addresses issues of race, but does not dwell on them. I am certain that Obama could have said a great deal more about the extra pressures put on them as the first black POTUS and FLOTUS. She says enough to remind the reader that it was always an issue, but more of her point on race is embedded in the chapters on her childhood and education, the drive to be best that, I think, reflects the reality that a person of color has to be better than everyone to be considered "good enough." The theme of the chapters on her early years is clearly that it wasn't enough to be "best"; she needed to think about what she was doing and why.
A final note on the political side: Obama continues to go high in this book. She refrains from the sort of scathing review of Donald Trump's tenure that I'm sure she feels, and only shares a little of the pain that it caused that he has been dismantling so much of what she and Barack worked for. Ditto the obstructionism of the congress during the Obamas' time in the White House. I consider that marvelous restraint, because I rant about it all the time, and I have much less reason to be angry.
Read it. Whether you were a fan of Barack Obama or not, the insights into a marriage, a presidency, family, and race are worth considering.
FTC Disclosure: I was given a copy of Becoming by a friend, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."