Review: 'Becoming' Michelle Obama

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks to the crowd as she presents her anticipated memoir "Becoming"   | Photo Credit: AP

Celebrity memoirs are often like fondant-covered cakes, laboured to blemish-free visual perfection, but dry and claggy on the inside. In Becoming, ‘Michelle Obama’ can sometimes be accused of the same, but where she is ‘Michelle Robinson’, the young black girl growing up in the rough and tumble of Southside Chicago, she serves up an account so honest and raw, that the book can only be compared to a Christmas pudding — rich, deep and authentic. While the latter part of her life is fairly well known, the first third of the book honestly explains who she is, anchoring her to the role she will eventually play.

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Growing up in modest circumstances — her father was a blue-collar worker in a water filtration plant and her mother stayed home – the Robinsons lived on an apartment above her great aunt and uncle. This aunt taught piano to the children in the neighbourhood. “The sound of people trying became the soundtrack of our lives,” Michelle writes early in the book. It is to the sound of young fingers trying to pound out Fur Elise that she is referring to. However, as the book unfolds with the story of Michelle Robinson, a young and determined black woman, it is quite clear that in the journey from that small apartment in Euclid Avenue to the massive White House in Pennsylvania Avenue, ‘trying’ continues to be the soundtrack of her life.

Shy, studious

Divided into three sections, Becoming — Me, Us, and More, Obama offers the reader a highlight reel of her life, slowing down to great detail in certain parts and zooming past in a great rush through others. Although it is Becoming Us, her life since meeting Barack and their journey to the White House that introduced the world to Michelle, it is in Becoming Me that Michelle introduces herself to the world. She is shy, but capable of punching a bully, she is studious, but obsessed with her Barbies, she is gifted, but she will still work harder than anyone else.

Review: 'Becoming' Michelle Obama

After high school, Michelle follows her brother to Princeton, where she is part of a small group of black students in a campus full of privileged white undergraduates. “Poppy seeds in a bowl of rice” she describes it. There, she is determined twice over to do well — as a girl who wants to rise above her station, as well as a representative of black people in an elite college. From Princeton she goes to Harvard and, on graduating, comes back to Chicago to work at a leading law firm in an office in the high floors of a building she used to bus past as a high school student. This much she had planned. What she hadn’t considered was that one day a man with a strange name whose reputation for brilliance preceded him would walk in, late, to her office and change the carefully charted course of her life.

Her romance with Barack Obama is instant and intense. They are opposites; he is the dreamer to her planner, the foil to her fastidiousness, the believer to her sceptic. It is nevertheless slightly disappointing that when they get together it is not only her distaste of smokers that she dismisses, but she also allows her plans for herself to become secondary to his ambitions.

Home, career

Much of what happens after is documented, although in Michelle’s telling lies the authenticity of the effort of Barack Obama’s career and their joint struggle to maintain a family life. With his entry in the book, much like in her life, Michelle is reduced to a supporting role. She dislikes politics, but throws herself into what is required of her, criss-crossing the country to campaign, shaking hands with strangers, soaring when praised, bitter when criticised. After she becomes First Lady, Michelle recollects sitting in the House of Representatives, waiting for Barack Obama to address a joint session of the congress. She looks down where congressmen are taking their seats and is overwhelmed by how white and how male the audience is, “an ocean of whiteness and maleness.” She had started with the hope of bringing in diversity to politics, but looking down at the crowd where more than half the people present opposed her husband, she sees a different truth. “They would fight everything Barack did, I realized, whether it was good for the country or not.”

For someone who has been described as “the most outspoken First Lady,” Michelle steers well clear of much political talk. She lets known her disdain for the current administration led by Donald Trump, but is palpably restrained in her criticism. For all that it reveals, Becoming is more significant for what it does not. Readers who are expecting an analysis of what has possibly gone wrong in a post-Obama America will be utterly disappointed. If anything, it has become more white and more male. Does she see this as a failure? Is she going to try and mend it? Michelle Robinson is certain to, but Michelle Obama doesn’t tell. Perhaps the clues lie in the soundtrack of her life.

Becoming; Michelle Obama, Penguin Random House, ₹999.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:54:05 PM |

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