Book review: ‘Becoming’
On the day Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” was published, I was at the airport. A woman sitting near me at the gate had three copies in her bag — more than $100, with tax — and was teasing her companion about whether she could have one for the flight. I jokingly offered mine. This was no coincidence. Three-quarters of a million copies of the book were sold that day, Nov. 13.
While I was eager to check it out, I didn’t have crazy-high expectations. I figured it would be something like Hillary Clinton’s most recent book, “What Happened” — an interesting inside look at a woman of character and achievement, plus a truckload of boring politics and partisanship.
Right from the start, I was surprised and swept up by the storytelling. Most of us already know about Michelle Robinson’s tight-knit family on the South Side of Chicago, described by her husband as the black “Leave It to Beaver.” The wholesomeness and warmth this suggests is evoked with complexity in “Becoming,” particularly her father’s dignified bearing of the burden of multiple sclerosis. Bad things happen in the neighborhood, from the decline of the local public school to a house fire that kills all the children and “spares” the parents.
I had already abandoned my reservations about “Becoming” when I reached what I will call the good part. The story she tells her about relationship with Barack Obama is like a mini romance novel. They met when she was assigned to mentor him at her law firm. This man with the odd name is “late on Day One” and she has doubts about the hype surrounding him (“you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers”). To top it off, he smoked cigarettes.
So as their relationship begins, there’s a kind of sexy power imbalance. The Goody Two-shoes with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School is holding the reins, and anyway, she’s not interested. Eventually, at lunches in a fancy restaurant on the firm’s expense account, his “refreshing, unconventional and weirdly elegant” brand of charm begins to get to her. Still, when he brings her his 30-page memo to read, she stuffs it in a drawer and tries to fix him up with one of her girlfriends. No go. He’s too much of an egghead for her pals.
It’s her he wants to go out with, but she’s like “What, you and me?” She’s watching him play basketball in flip-flops at the company barbecue when something clicks. Later that night, they are sitting on a curb outside the ice cream shop and he asks if he can kiss her. You know his voice; you can just hear it.
At this point, I felt the writing was so strong and the heartstring-pulling so adept that I skipped ahead to the Acknowledgments looking for a paean to her English teacher or other evidence of a creative writing past. Instead, I found thanks to the two writers with whom she collaborated. Bummer. I had to give up my dreams of Michelle Obama’s career as a novelist.
Once she’s with Barack, Michelle faces a serious problem. It begins to take shape in her mind one night in bed when he looks perturbed. “What are you thinking about?” she asks, thinking maybe it’s the relationship. Maybe it’s the loss of his father. “Income inequality,” he replies.
She starts to see what’s going to happen. This man’s sense of mission and his talent — his destiny — are going to steamroll every plan she has for herself. She does not welcome this. Every time he thinks about running for office, starting with the State Senate, she vainly tries to stop him. And it turns out, she was right: She ends up living in a beautiful prison with windows that don’t open, and no one is interested in anything about her but her clothes and her mistakes.
Unlike Hillary, Michelle knows partisan politics are boring — the story doesn’t even get to Washington, D.C., until page 280; the whole second term gets just a few pages. Donald Trump is only mentioned a couple of times.
The main takeaway from “Becoming” is don’t ever, ever become president if you value your freedom. There’s a scene where she and Malia can’t get out of the White House to see the rainbow lights that have been strung up on it for marriage equality.
Who knows what Michelle Robinson would have been without Barack Obama. But what she became with him is a part of history, and the contribution of this couple to our life as a nation is something to read about.