• Weslie Ashe

Book Review: Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Let me begin by saying if you have not yet read this book, you should. Or, better yet, go get the audio copy of Becoming, and let former First Lady Michelle Obama read it to you herself. It is worth all nineteen hours and three minutes.


I'll wait.

Are you done? Are you done? Did you love it? I hope you loved it. To me, Michelle Obama's book felt like the equivalent of a respected female mentor sitting with me over a cup of coffee, telling me all the best and worst things she's experienced so far as a smart, successful, ambitious, talented woman married to a smart, successful, ambitious, talented man, and saying, "but it's okay if you don't have it all figured out yet, because I'm still becoming who I want to be, too."


Michelle takes the reader through her journey of "becoming me," from growing up in a working-class black family to becoming a lawyer at an elite Chicago law firm. Then she shows us how meeting Barack Obama changed her life and made her part of an "us." And, finally, she describes how her husband's political career forced her to become "more."


You'd think that a First Lady of the United States would be difficult to relate to for most people, but Michelle has a magical ability to connect on a very human level, and her story doesn't feel removed at all. Instead, her biography feels like a story in which every woman will see herself somewhere. Michelle was a child in a tight-knit family. She had dreams, and an older brother to look up to, and hard-working parents committed to their children's success. She was a college student in an unfamiliar world, learning how to adjust to new expectations and always wondering "am I enough?" She was a young lawyer in a big city with a nice car and some luxury items and a sense that somehow she wasn't quite satisfied with anything she was doing. She was a box-checking woman dating an always-late man who rocked her expectations and made her fall in love. She was a thirty-something balancing infertility treatments and work, a mother dreaming about tigers chasing her kids, a woman making cheese toast.


And then she was also a woman who fled from the final party after her husband's inauguration--the one where all her friends were there to celebrate with her--because she was so damn tired. And she was a woman who hugged the Queen of England because Michelle Obama is a hugger, and what else does a hugger do but the human thing when she recognizes another woman in a pair of uncomfortable shoes at a formal event?


Truthfully, it would be difficult to explain why Michelle's words have the ability to strike such a chord with her readers. Is she charming? Yes. But to leave it at that would take power out of her words. Is she edgy? Yes. But in the best, most vulnerable of ways. Is she compelling? Absolutely. You come away from her book wondering what you've already become and what you will become and what you want to become, but this happens though she never demands any change from her readers. Is she inspirational? Definitely, without qualification. But I suspect that Michelle Obama feels she is still "becoming" herself, so there's also a tone of reflection, exploration, and self-discovery in the book.


On a personal note, I normally consider myself a relatively privileged white woman, so I can't claim to understand Michelle Obama's childhood in a working-class black family. But somehow, I still felt like she was telling parts of my own story. I grew up solidly middle-class, and, like Michelle, I was smart and ambitious without really having a sense of what I could do with any of that. When she spoke about being a box-checker, I got it. When she talked about how the smell of pine-sol still makes her automatically feel better about life, I was so with her. When she talked about how there were times in her life when she looked down on colleagues who "swerved" from the beaten paths to success, and how she later developed the courage to "swerve" herself, I was there. (I'm a recovering attorney myself--one who started her legal career in an elite Chicago law firm, actually--and I still remember feeling like I was flinging myself off a cliff when I decided to leave law and move into something non-traditional instead.)


I loved that Michelle talked openly about her infertility struggles, which is something I face myself, along with millions of other women. I loved that she talked openly about demanding couples counseling when she found her way of relating to the world clashing with her husband's world, something every married woman I know has faced (the clash at least, though not always the counseling!). And every time Michelle talked about the "close and high-spirited council of girlfriends" she relies on, I shivered and felt myself tear up. She simply speaks universal truths, and I think whenever we hear someone powerful making herself vulnerable enough to admit a universal truth, it's like a big flag waving in the air. "Here I am. This is what's true. Come find me in the place of your own truth."


You can't help but respond.



There's a lot about Becoming that's going to stick with me for a long time, and I think any reader who picks it up is going to feel the same. You read it yourself and decide what you like the best. These are some of the things that I can't get out of my head:


(1) “Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”


(2) "Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It's vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear."

(3) “...a happy marriage can be a vexation...it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately—even alone.”

(4) "This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.”

Did you read or listen to the book? What did you like most about it? What did you take away? Comment below!

 

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