Dazzled By Ground-Breaking Memoir of A First Lady

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.

One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.

The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.

To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.

What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.

There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.

Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.

Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.

It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”

But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.

Confronting Challenges

It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.

Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.

Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.

Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.

Dealing With Criticism

And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.

I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.

What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.

Becoming A Role Model

Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness. 

This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.

In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.

I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.

That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better.  It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 27, 2019, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. What a great and in-depth review. I bought this book for a friend as a Christmas present and it sounds like I made the right choice 🙂

    • Your friend will be delighted with it. I decided to read a few entries each day to keep in the spirit of it being a journal of a year. It was so tempting just to keep reading on though

  2. One of my coworkers got to go see her when she came to town on her book tour. She said it was the most amazing experiences she has ever had.

  3. The story behind that gesture is lovely. Apparently the 2 women were at the reception and Michelle whispered to the queen that her feet were hurting. The queen said ‘mine too’ – they looked at each other and realised that for all the glitz and grandeur of the occasion they were just two women whose feet were hurting. It was such a moment of the meeting of two minds that Michelle gave her a hug….

  4. The pictures were my favorite part.

  5. Great review! I loved this book so hard. I get depressed sometimes and reading Becoming was almost like a permanent anti-depressant for me. (Not that I take those, I don’t.) Yes to the “becoming” tone of her story! Even at my advanced age, it gave me hope, courage and purpose.

  6. I would agree. Definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read, particularly for such a globally recognizable politically related person. I admire both Barack and Michelle even more after reading it. And how I wish they could have remained in those roles. The U.S. representation at present is abominable, pitiful, and without justification. My country had better gets its “head out of its ass” and vote into power reasonable, knowledgeable, and ethical leaders yet once again come November 2020. Let that be the year the U.S. defies all Russian interference and becomes a world leader yet once again for the right causes.

    • Michelle didn’t hold back in her views on your current President did she. The Obama’s must have been horrified at seeing all the changes they introduced turned upside down.

  7. Remember when Australian prime minister Paul Keating put his hand on the Queen’s. He got headlines in all the English tags. I happened to be in Copenhagen for work, and they were talking about it there.

  8. The book sounds fantastic. Michelle Obama is someone worth reading. My wife will probably be reading this soon. I will try to give it a read myself within the next year.

  9. Not the kind of book I’m usually drawn to but for Michelle Obama, I’ll make an exception. I remember reading an interview with her in The Observer before the 2008 election and thinking she was even brighter than her husband.

    • What I sensed from the book is that they complement each other well. He is the big thinker who has an amazing ability to store and recall facts, she is more in touch with real people and what issues they face.

  10. Thanks for the review, I didn’t know much about this book until recently. I don’t read many memoirs, but this once sounds good.

  11. I sure miss them. I’ll never understand how the USA can from there to the clown who is there now in one election. Liked your review.

  12. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    What a fabulous review! This is one that I really want to get around to reading on audiobook, because I hear it’s particularly wonderful in that medium – but I’m on the never-ending treadmill of great podcasts, and never seem to get around to a full-length audiobook, gah! Thank you for the reminder/nudge!

  13. I love the photos of Michelle Obama with her arm around the Queen. The Queen herself, whatever her other faults, has I think very little (if any) racism in her, despite her ancestors and (possibly misunderstood) husband. By all accounts she loves and loved the Obamas, so as far as she was concerned an affectionate arm was just an expression of a shared friendship. Likewise, I’m sure, from Michelle’s point of view: she was just spontaneously expressing her affection for her new bud.

    And yet, to hear the anti-Obama crew on both sides of the Atlantic, you’d have thought there’d been a major breach of protocol. To be honest, even though I say “on both sides of the Atlantic,” there’s not much of an anti-Obama crew in the UK, where, as in most of the rest of the world, both Obamas, Michelle especially, are very widely liked and respected.

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