You can hear Michelle Obama read from her compelling memoir on Radio 4's Book of the Week where she invites listeners into her world. In Becoming she chronicles 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 honesty and wit, she tells her story as she has lived it.
“Becoming” is refined and forthright, gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, with a humbler tone and less name-dropping than might be expected of one who is on chatting terms with the queen of England. One of Obama’s strengths is her ability to look back not from the high perch of celebrity or with the inevitability of hindsight but with the anxieties of the uncertain. She writes in the moment, as she saw and felt and discovered — as events were occurring. Even though we all know that she and Barack Obama end up getting married and having two kids, that he wins the 2008 Iowa caucuses and that they make it to the White House, she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened.
The book keeps history fresh; it never seems a given that their marriage will work, or that he will be elected. Only once they are in the White House, the responsibility of power and the unreality of their lives deadens the read a little...But, for the main part, what a memoir. What a woman. The new regime gives a perspective that makes it all seem even more precious — and precarious. There are moments when she sounds heart-broken, for example on gun control. But this is also a rousing vindication of all that hopey-changey stuff and the personal foundations upon which it was built.
No buyer will be disappointed. This is an amazingly frank and intimate book, appealingly conversational in tone, revealing about her life altogether, not just being First Lady. She’s remarkably candid about how different she and Barack Obama are, and the distance between them. Not the least of the many winning disclosures is her complete lack of natural interest in politics, much as that will disappoint those hoping she will one day stand for office.
Becoming brims over with such emotional truthfulness... The book, so rich in noticing and perception you keep forgetting it’s not a novel, paints a vivid picture of the White House’s privileged captivity... With its generosity of spirit, self-knowledge and hopefulness it is the perfect antidote to the man who now lives in the White House. Real news, not the fake kind... Michelle Obama has produced a plangent, defiant, honest and uplifting book which could only have been written by someone who learned to play on “a honky-tonk patchwork of yellowed keys and conveniently chipped middle C”.
There is a known problem with celebrity memoirs, which is that most people’s childhoods are boring and the narrative only perks up when fame arrives. Except that is often the point when the writer clams up, fearful of breaking confidences. Unexpectedly, though, the best parts of this book are about Obama’s childhood, on the South Side of Chicago. Whether she can write, or her team can write, or Barack helped a bit, I don’t know. (There is a coy reference to “collaborators” in the acknowledgements, including one Sara Corbett, whose Twitter bio reads: “obscure writer, quiet collaborator”.) But Obama’s voice shines through the unfussy prose, with rather fewer of the flat campaign-speak platitudes that marred Hillary Clinton’s What Happened.
I expected the heart of this beautifully written memoir to be the part we all witnessed but longed to know more about: the experience of living as the world’s most powerful and glamorous couple, the first black family to occupy the White House. Yet intriguing as Michelle Obama’s insights into her life as first lady are, that’s not where the greatest power and energy of this compelling story lie... the charm of this part of the book is in the details.
Becoming is frequently funny, sometimes indignant or enraged, and when Michelle describes her father’s early death from multiple sclerosis it turns rawly emotional. My favourite scene is a recent one, with Michelle in her new Washington home, alone one evening except for the armed guards in the garage. Feeling peckish, she pads downstairs, barefoot and in her shorts, toasts bread, grills cheese in the microwave, then takes the “fat mess of gooey cheddar” outside to eat – none of which she would have been allowed to do in the White House, at least not without supervision or fussy assistance.
The preface, which sketches out the outlines of the Obama family’s new post-White House life, ends with the words, “And here I am, in this new place, with a lot I want to say.” It’s a thrilling way to start Becoming, and Obama indeed has a lot to say. But the book is more a compilation of memories than a memoir with thrust. The plot loops back upon itself and embellishes already trod territory with new, surprising, and valuable information. In a sense, it is an entirely honest methodology—a nonlinear narration of becoming, in which old memories take on new meaning as the self evolves. But, put another way, it’s just confusing.
Michelle, now 54, is refreshingly frank about her shortcomings, including her inability to swerve from the appointed path... I skidded through, always on the look-out for the wry aside, for she has a good sense of humour... This book is the first step of what will be many back to finding her old self. This is a vivid and interesting account and all of that is to her credit. I certainly thought better of her by the end: she has put her heart into this. I think she can consider the autobiography box ticked.
Becoming’s prose is at times arrestingly good. The suspense of Election Day is rendered with numinous brevity... Then there’s this elegant gloss on the stressors on her husband as president: “His job, it seemed, was to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership… But – a function perhaps of her delimited role as First Lady – it drags during the White House years... Michelle’s disdain for Trump has been widely reported; she blames him for callously imperilling her family.
With the full weight of Trump’s presidency on our shoulders, there’s something devilishly comforting about losing yourself in a book that so effortlessly pulls you out of today’s hellscape and thrusts you back to what, comparably at least, seem like the good old days.
Some readers might smile at the schmaltz. But it serves a purpose: the book is dotted with tales about this complementary relationship — the delight they take in teasing each other over issues such as his smoking, or her need for control — and, if nothing else, it provides convincing signs that the Obamas have a genuine deep romantic connection and marriage... I closed the book hoping that one day she would use her formidable intelligence, humanity — and humour — to offer a more tangible vision for how America might fight the rising tides of polarisation and hate.
If the publishers wanted grit and juice for their sizeable advance, the lowdown on the Queen to Hillary, they certainly got it.
Yet for all Becoming’s readability and acumen, there is the odd passage that borders on motivational-speaker terrain. The polemic, not least nearing the end of the book as Michelle outlines her current preoccupations, can start to taste a touch cloying or earnest.
Rather, it’s when Michelle sticks closer to the personal and the confessional that Becoming truly comes into its own. And given who she, her husband and daughters are, and their vantage point of the world, how could it be anything else but a riveting, charming read?
It’s hard to be cynical about either Obama’s strength of character or her authenticity. Her book confirms what was observable about her time in the White House, that while she may have had to shape herself into the mould of what politics requires of a first lady, it was still a first lady-shaped version of something real. Her genuine dislike for politics is hard to avoid, in a book rooted in a high moral ground above insults and mudslinging, the political process itself seems the only thing she allows herself to freely insult.
...Becoming is a work of realism. That may be a strange conclusion to draw about a work of non-fiction, but one of the features of a certain kind of American memoir is an “inspirational” quality that soars above life, even as it includes “hardscrabble” beginnings. Michelle Obama is nothing if not inspiring. But her story rings true, and tough. Those who’ve loved her for dancing on TV with Ellen DeGeneres or doing “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden will find that her childhood is not a comedy routine but a history lesson
Even if Becoming is not always interesting, it is much more interesting than it needed to be to qualify as a successful first lady memoir. And as an example of how to walk the tightrope — how to seem charming but not like an intellectual lightweight; how to get things done without seeming threatening; how to do all of the impossible things we demand of women in general, of first ladies in particular, and of the first black first lady as an absolute — Becoming is a straight-up master class.
But it’s the moments when Obama tries to make sense of what she’s seeing now, in the country, that are among the most moving — if only because she’s so clearly struggling to reconcile the cleareyed realism of her upbringing, brought about by necessity, with the glamorous, previously unthinkable life she has today.