Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

17 thoughts on “Becoming by Michelle Obama

  1. Great review, Claire. There has been so much around about this book that I feel as if I have already read it. But perhaps that is part of her message, that it is wrong to make assumptions about people, and even oneself. I see that she has narrated the audiobook herself – I always like memoirs told by the authors so will have a listen to that version some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The audio has had great feedback for that very reason. I think by reading this book I got to know a different person than that which has been portrayed and each of us respond to different aspects of her experience, depending on what we bring to the reading. It’s an exceptional self reflection especially for career oriented women, wives, mothers. I really enjoyed going back and rereading all the highlighted passages, remembering those moments when things clicked.

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  2. I love this book. I saw her speak in Amsterdam last month – she is such an inspiration. She said very little about the current administration and this showed also her restraint, dignity and ultimately her real opinion – very clever!
    I was surprised at how well this was written – so often memoir is just a list of “I did this, I did that.” The self-reflection sparkles from every page.

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    • Yes, actually she says little about the administration even in the book, those eight years hold fewer stories and epiphanies than life before being secluded in the White House. She’s very discerning about what she shares and yet very open, she’s sharing her own experiences and learning, not passing judgement on others, except to admit when she was younger when she had done that (e.g. judged the boyfriend who made the big swerve) admitting that she had been wrong about that, showing that she learned from it.
      That must have been quite something to listen to her in person, what an opportunity.
      I’m glad she chose to share her learning, and showed some of her vulnerability and reluctance, you’re so right and I love the way you out it, “the self-reflection sparkled from every page.”

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your reflections about this memoir, Claire. A little like Liz, I almost feel as if I’ve read some of it already as a consequence of all the publicity surrounding the book, but your review shows that there’s much more to Michelle’s story than the headline soundbites.

    It’s interesting to hear that some members of your book group were not necessarily admirers of Michelle at the outset. Did the book change their perceptions of her in any way? I’d be keen to hear a little more about that if you’re able to share.

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    • Yes, I was surprised at that too, there was unanimous admiration having read about her in her own words, I don’t know what created this initial feeling, what sources, it wasn’t explored any further, it was something new to me. The perception of her was changed through reading the memoir, for the better.

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      • Wonderful review. Of course, there are many in the United States who have quite a negative view of her, and will never read her book. But that is the situation in our country today….quite polarized based on nothing in reality……the toxic atmosphere in our culture often perpetuated by social media, incorrect information online, etc.

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        • Thank you for that Valorie, I wondered if it was due to the polarization of the media, and with all the electronic filters, we seem to view perspectives on stories that fit with our narrative view of the world.

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  4. I have enjoyed reading your review of this memoir. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but as others have mentioned, I have heard a lot about it. I’m curious to experience it for myself and I like how you mentioned the section where the book became unputdownable for you. Great review!

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  5. This book was in any case on my ‘to read’ list, but your review has bumped it up several slots. Michelle Obama has appeared to be an inspiration for many young women in harder-to-reach groups, and it looks as if the book will provide a rich picture of her and of her motivations.

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    • Indeed Margaret, it is when she gets involved in initiatives around education for women during their time at the White House that I felt she’d really begun to make her mark, she’s such an inspiration and her presence and words have been shown to have a marked effect on results for young women who have the opportunity to come into contact with her. I think her best work is yet to come, now that she has become so well known and admired. I loved reading about her growing in her life and career, worrying about making changes, that yearning for the stability of an extended, traditional family and navigating a relationship in the toughest of circumstances, albeit grossly privileged and imprisoned as they were.

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  6. I really enjoyed the book and the honesty with which she writes. And you’re right, she does seem to have the ability to step outside herself and observe herself from a distance — not easy to do.

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  7. Hi, Claire–wonderful review and I agree 100%. I was absolutely riveted and tried to slow down my reading–I didn’t want the book to end. She inspires me even more after reading the book. I’m so glad she wrote it and got it out into the world.

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  8. Excellent review Claire! I read the parts about her childhood, and a bit about the presidency. Couldn’t agree more that the initial parts felt more compelling and less guarded/conventional, though it was interesting to learn more about all her journey.

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  9. Great review. I’m currently reading the book. I’ve been doing so since March, I think. I like it and enjoy it, but I’m taking my time with it. I agree that it’s a good one and I appreciate how much Michelle Obama shares with us in.

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