Book Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama


Review by Bud Gundy

I don’t find politicians and their families very interesting, even if I support their policies. I usually resist reading autobiographies and memoirs, preferring the seemingly-detached gaze of the historian or journalist. Few people are capable of rising above their own egos to offer a dispassionate look at their lives and I have little interest in reading justifications, no matter how much I admire and respect the person.

I bought Michelle Obama’s book as a message of solidarity, a way to strike back at the disrespect and contempt she and President Obama endured while in the White House. I formed a vague impression of an accomplished, thoroughly decent couple but never invested much effort in learning about their personal lives. I wasn’t sure which of their daughters was Malia or Sasha until I read Becoming.

After downloading the book to my e-reader, I kept seeing the cover while I selected other reads. The photo is arresting, both minimalist and lavish. Her smile, her pose, and her hair make an exuberant, poised statement. It intrigued me until I decided to give it a try.

I’m glad I did. While I feared a detailed, heavy exploration of her life before the White House, she skimmed the details to harvest the important points such as her father’s stoicism, never missing a day of work as MS tore his body apart. She glides past the first boyfriends and offers flashes of her extensive family, just enough to give us the feel of their boisterous spirit and a few brooding individuals.

Her mother stands out as a driven and supportive influence. I laughed out loud at a few statements I heard in my own mom’s voice and recognized the way Marian Robinson’s uncompromising expectation for excellence grew not just from love, but also unsentimental wisdom.

I knew Michelle Obama built an impressive Ivy League academic profile (Princeton and Harvard!) but I didn’t realize her first job landed her in a Chicago skyscraper with her own office, earning a salary in the 1980’s that is enviable even today. It was also great fun when a guy named Barrack showed up in her office one day, as a possible future hire at the blue-chip law firm.

The next few years pass quickly across the pages, as a love affair becomes a marriage and Michelle Obama realizes that landing a big, splashy job was an understandable but misguided goal for someone of her temperament. She and her husband seek new ways to help the community, all while having two daughters and living a rushed family life many people will recognize.

The campaign and election in 2008 are thrilling rides. After spending so much time with a young Michelle in Chicago, it’s easy to share the excitement of moving into the White House, traveling the world, and setting goals as First Lady. It’s an intimate, fun, and dizzying story that lets us glimpse the enchanted course her life took, including her friendship with Queen Elizabeth. Of course, the story comes with the dispiriting racist reality the Obamas faced and I’m glad she didn’t avoid it for the sake of expediency.

It’s hard not to wince as the 2016 election looms, and Obama deals frankly and honestly about her feelings and the body-slam so many of us felt. She doesn’t say it outright, but I couldn’t help but re-live the sickening disbelief that people of such impeccable moral fiber were followed by…oh, hell I’ll let her speak for herself.

I recommend Becoming as a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of a dynamic woman who has a lot of wisdom and insight to share.