By now, much has been written about the newsier, juicier parts of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming.”
Her anger at Donald Trump for promoting the “birther” nonsense about husband Barack, for instance, or her despair on the night of the 2016 election. “I understood what was probably happening, but I wasn’t ready to face it,” she writes, and so she got up and went to bed.
But there is much more to this book, which is not a political memoir. Michelle Obama has never run for office and makes it clear that she almost certainly never will.
“Becoming” is a warm, intimate coming-of-age story of a strong-minded girl who grew up to become one of the most powerful and influential women in the country. It is filled with determination, love of family and many subtle and not-so-subtle lessons about being female, black, and black and female in America.
She talks openly about things that many people are uncomfortable discussing. (Race! It is so hard, still, to talk about race.) She writes about what it feels like to be the only black person in a room filled with white people. (At Princeton, she says, she and the few other African-American students were “poppy seeds in a bowl of rice.”)
She writes about how, as a black person, she knows she has to work harder and be better prepared than her white colleagues. She writes about how her high school counselor told her she wasn’t Princeton material, and how that dismissal (“she was telling me to lower my sights”) only made her more resolute to get into the Ivy League.
She also writes about the importance of strong women in her life — not just her mother and teachers, but mentors and friends. She writes about problems in her marriage — her difficulties getting pregnant, her fights and frustrations with Barack and how they needed counseling to work things out.
The most interesting part of the book is the first half, about growing up in Chicago. Michelle, her brother and their parents lived in the top half of a duplex owned by her mother’s aunt Robbie, a piano teacher. Michelle’s father had hoped at one time to become an artist, but without money for college (and “no model of what that sort of life looked like”), he joined the Army, then took a job tending the boilers at the city water plant. He developed MS while still a young man and died at 55.
While it’s clear they had little money, she never describes her childhood as underprivileged. Instead, she tells stories and lets readers draw their own conclusions. For instance, as a child she took piano lessons on Robbie’s old piano, and she grew to recognize middle C because of a crack in the ivory. But when she gave her first recital — on a baby grand piano at Roosevelt University — she was briefly lost. All the keys were perfect. How would she know where to begin?
She portrays her romance with Barack Obama as a delicious, sexy love story. He crackles on the page from the very beginning, when he shows up late for his first meeting with her at the law firm where she is to be his mentor. His reputation as a brilliant and gifted lawyer did not impress her. “In my experience,” she writes, “you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers.”
They quickly become good friends, but for months she is so uninterested in him that she tries to set him up with one of her friends.
The second half of the book covers ground most of us have lived through — the political rise of Barack; Michelle’s intense dislike of politics; and the way her life expanded and contracted once he was elected.
More interesting than the politics are the details of life in the White House, where she couldn’t even open a window (bullet-resistant and sealed shut for protection) and where sneaky incognito trips to PetSmart and Target make her feel, briefly, free.
And by the end of the book, she is, of course, truly free.
At home alone, no more hermetically sealed windows, no more guards, she pads downstairs and makes herself some cheese toast. And then, she muses, she might open a window, “so I could feel the spring air — how glorious that would be.”
By: Michelle Obama.
Publisher: Crown, 426 pages, $32.50.
Coming Sunday: A review of “The Dakota Winters,” by Tom Barbash.