Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” -book review

It all started because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was interviewing Michelle Obama in the Southbank Centre in London, and I really wanted to go. Michelle Obama would have been nice to see, sure, but Adichie I was really excited about. And then, well, the ticket booking service crashed when I was number 17 567 in the ticket queue. So that was that.

I listened to some excerpts from the book read by Michelle Obama herself on BBC Radio 4, and I really enjoyed them.

Some months later I noticed that Becoming was available on Audible, and that it was being read by Michelle Obama herself.

So I guess you could say I got caught in the massive Penguin Random House Publicity machine, and I have lost all semblance of my own free will. But I’m glad.

At this stage I didn’t know much about Michelle Obama, other than she is the wife of Barack and that she made that awesome karaoke appearance (here’s the link if you haven’t seen it yet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ln3wAdRAim4 ).

But there is a lot more to learn.

First, Michelle Obama wasn’t born and bred to be a President’s wife. She was the second in her family to go to college, following her brother’s footsteps into Princeton and then Harvard Law School. She became a corporate lawyer in Chicago –  and it was then that she met Barack, who was introduced to her as the intern. But she didn’t like the corporate world, and she switched careers, first to the mayor of Chicago’s office and finally to the University of Chicago Medical Center. She continued to have her own job, right up until the point Barack was elected President of the United States. She conscientiously highlights the problems faced by black women every day – and she did so throughout her husband’s presidency.

It is the first half of the book, before Barack’s presidency that I found most fascinating. I was struck by the incredible drive that seems to be ever-present in Michelle’s life. No matter what she is doing, she wants to do it well. She has an aim. And while during Barack’s presidency her loyalties were far more split between husband, children, nation and staff, in her account of her youth, I was struck by her sheer perseverance. The Audible version of the autobiography adds its own special touch – as you feel that Michelle is talking to you personally, sharing the story of her own life.

She is not afraid to say that she has made mistakes, and she doesn’t spare herself much embarrassment. It is encouraging for any young woman to hear both her thoughts about changing careers and about balancing work and motherhood. Her account is thoughtful and matter of fact.

Michelle writes lovingly about her parents: her father’s struggle with MS, her brother’s dreams of playing professional basketball, and her mother’s readiness to give up everything for her children. She does not hold back when talking about her early years. Necessarily, of course, she must hold something back about Barack, Malia, and Sasha.

I’d much rather hear about how Michelle’s elder brother ran practice fire drills in their house due to the high risk of fire in the Southside than hear about the Queen sharing Michelle’s dislike for high-heeled shoes. It is in these highly personal bits of Michelle’s narrative that her voice really shines.

My favourite story is Michelle’s account of how she learned to play the piano, taught by her aunt. Taught on a piano with broken keys, Michelle never had a problem finding the C, as she recognized it by the chip on the keyboard. If you want to learn what happens when she had to play a concert… well, you will just have to pick up a copy of this book.

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