Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

When I think of this book and of Michelle Obama’s character, the first word that comes to mind is ‘empathy’. This beautifully candid and intimate memoir transports you through the former First Lady’s life both inside and outside of American politics, and as a reader you cannot help but be touched by her charisma and humility. It is a primarily witty and uplifting read, nostalgic of her personal life, but that is not to say that equal attention is not paid to issues that would ravage America both before and during her family's time in the political sphere, or to the adversity she faced both as an African American and coming from working-class roots. In this account, the facts are not attempted to be sugar-coated, nor does Obama's tone ever verge on egotistical when celebrating her successes - it simply feels humble and truthful. Michelle’s heartening journey, evidencing just how much can be achieved in a lifetime with perseverence and hard work, is something I am sure I and many others will return to when in need of some inspiration - and for this the text's potency cannot be denied. 

Progressing chronologically, the memoir consists of three parts, Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More, covering her life from childhood up until the end of her time at the White House. The first few chapters begin by setting the scene of a childhood spent on Chicago's South Side in the late 1960s, of days spent as a four-year old first listening to, and then beginning piano lessons with a great aunt who lived downstairs. The first instruction of her first lesson: "find the middle C". Obama goes on to explain that, even if you are too small to reach both sides of the piano as a child, you can still play anything using this anchoring point. This early anecdote seems to serve as a running metaphor throughout the rest of the narrative: Becoming tells a story of an individual who has continually strived for balance, from efforts to improve civil rights and female equality; encouragement of balanced diets and lifestyles among Americans with her Let's Move campaign; to a balance of personal and professional life. It is unsurprising really that Obama has emerged to be a conscientious individual and major female icon of our era, when you consider that her life began with this constant thrum of others trying around her, repeating their scales below her bedroom until they got it right. This would be my biggest praise point of the text: the dominant message is always that great things will happen if you are willing to give courage and time, an encouraging message in an often apathetic modern-day world. 

Another praise point, and something I had worried before reading could hinder my appreciation of certain parts of the text, is that you do not have to know a great deal about the intricacies of American politics, nor be passionate about politics to enjoy this read. Instead, Michelle gives insight into major decisions and overcoming challenges, but within the context of her life – she treats personal decisions, decisions in her career as a lawyer, as well as the challenges that came with adopting the role of First Lady, with as much attention as the other. Much of the text centres around her and Barack’s time in The White House, obviously, but she openly admits to not being a political person, explaining that she cares deeply about her country's fate, but that she and Barack had always been 'sounding boards' for each other, and that he was best left to the politics.

Becoming's later chapters largely relates how instead Michelle would focus on how to best navigate a period of eight years with a title that's purpose is so seemingly vague, yet so loaded with power and influence. Beyond her professional efforts, she speaks of motherhood, of the kitchen garden she created on the South Lawn and subsequent efforts to reduce childhood obesity rates over America, of the strains that can be put on family life and romantic relationships living in the world's most famous address, of the pressure and anxiety that comes with being such an international presence. She eloquently conveys positive experiences and hardships that shaped her throughout her life, inside and beyond the context of being the President's wife. She recounts her time at Princeton university and Harvard Law before going on to work for Sidley Austin where she would meet Barack, whilst also delving deeper, speaking unreservedly of grief and losses, personal tragedies such as the slow disintegration of her father's body through a battle with multiple sclerosis, and even dedicating several pages to her experience with miscarriage. Obama's tale is ultimately refreshing because even in its conclusion, she does not aim to present herself as the perfectly poised demi-goddess as is often viewed the First Lady of the United States. Instead parting more like a sister to her readership, her message is that ultimately despite everything, true happiness and meaning in life can only truly be maintained when you stay grounded and true to yourself. Like a spring clean for the soul, Becoming is a breath of fresh air and the perfect read to kick-start your 2019.