Michelle Obama takes us from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to becoming the first black First Lady of the United States.
The first seven chapters, in which Obama (née Robinson) goes through school and college before joining a law firm are, to put it bluntly, rather boring (with the exception of the fact she once worked as Barney the Dinosaur’s lawyer).
It’s nice to understand something about her family background, but her self-described straight arrow path to professional success is of limited interest, particularly compared to the patchwork heritage of her husband.
Things get going when she meets Barack, and we get a portrait of him before he ever considered running for office. Obama describes how, as an obsessive planner, she had to adjust to Barack’s spontaneity, unshaking optimism and unorthodox approach to problem solving. In one early example he heads to a beach in Indonesia for two months just six weeks after their wedding in order to write Dreams from My Father.
Becoming does an excellent job of helping us see both Obamas outside the context of their famous jobs. Since most of us are only aware of Michelle in her role as political spouse it’s interesting to see the challenges she faced in adjusting to it.
Prior to Barack’s run for the presidency she maintained a successful career of her own in an organisation working on supporting people without access to health insurance. She faces a similar struggle to many professional mothers of finding a work/life balance, particularly with a husband who is largely absent thanks to his work as an Illinois state then US senator.
As Obama transitions to life in the public eye, following Barack’s pivotal speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, she has to adjust to a new level of scrutiny of her career, appearance and patriotism. Then on assuming the presidency she must relinquish control over her own life to a huge team of people. Here we get a sense of the enormous personal sacrifice undertaken by high-flying politicians and their families.
She is a passionate defender of her principles, which are similar to those of her husband. However, she maintains a significant scepticism of politics and its inherent tribalism, preferring to make a difference through other means. As a result the narrative consciously stays away from politics, mentioning key events only to contextualise what else is happening. This keeps the focus on Obama’s story and their family life, and avoids treading the same ground as Barack’s yet-to-be-published memoir.
Some of the most fascinating aspects are the details of life in the White House; the staff, the fact the President and his family have to pay for their own food, the world travel, the security. There are plenty of telling anecdotes here, particularly involving daughters Malia and Sasha, including some degree of regret over the demands placed on them.
While it’s undeniable that she’s well-known due to the job her husband did, we get a sense of what a team effort it was for the Obamas to reach that position, and that the accomplishment belongs at least in part to Michelle too. During the campaign she was an active surrogate for Barack, doing stump speeches and capitalising on her unique gift for connecting with people. The book also provides a platform to promote the oft-overlooked accomplishments of her work on veteran care and children’s fitness.
Obama is gracious and appreciative for the opportunities she’s been afforded, with the whirlwind past 15 years leaving her remarkably grounded. She’s also a good writer with clear and fluid prose throughout. The result is a picture of a strong and determined woman who makes enormous personal sacrifices in service of a greater good, and a unique look at life inside the world’s most famous house.