Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Total book sales, including hardcover, audio and e-books editions, sold around 725,000 copies in the United States and Canada during its first day, making it the second best-selling debut for any book in 2018. The book sold 1.4 million copies in its first week. After 15 days, the book became the best-selling book in the US for the year 2018. By March 26 2019, Becoming had sold 10 million copies.

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Michelle Obama’s Becoming narrates the remarkable rise of its author from shoebox apartment on Chicago’s south side through Ivy League undergrad and grad school to white-shoe law firm and her subsequent collision with “an Afro-Kansan-Indonesian-Hawaiian-Chicagoan” with a “weird name and quixotic smile [who] brilliantly upended everything”.

Bright and driven, she tests into an elite high school, thence – defying a counsellor’s advice to aim lower – to Princeton. She’s subsequently admitted to Harvard Law before being recruited to the partner-track at Sidley & Austin in downtown Chicago. Here, she runs headlong into an intern – 28 to her 25 following a detour into community organising – on vacation from his own legal studies at Harvard. The two become smitten.

Michelle is spurred by Barack’s example to expand her horizons beyond personal upward mobility – “It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place…another thing entirely to try to get the place itself unstuck.” She quits Sidley for a nonprofit devoted to cultivating community leaders. For his part, Obama is drawn to Michelle’s groundedness as a daughter of the south side raised in a stable family, rooted in Chicago’s African American community.

Michelle caught flak during the 2008 presidential campaign for kvetching about Barack’s failure to pick up his socks after him and other domestic delinquencies – deemed by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd an unseemly, infantilising schtick. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she rejoins. “Maureen Dowd would have preferred, apparently, that I adopt the painted-on smile and the adoring gaze.”

But this conveniently overlooks Dowd’s intimation that Michelle’s vigilance did not extend to possible real dirty laundry – a transaction to extend their personal property line involving a subsequently-jailed wheeler-dealer who also contributed to Barack’s political coffers.

Becoming’s prose is at times arrestingly good. The suspense of Election Day is rendered with numinous brevity: “You’ve leaped but you haven’t landed.” Then there’s this elegant gloss on the stressors on her husband as president: “His job, it seemed, was to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership…”

But – a function perhaps of her delimited role as First Lady – it drags during the White House years. Chastened by Hillary Clinton’s fumbled attempt to eke out more substantive responsibilities for the office, Michelle bridles at being reduced to futzing over protocol. Still, she drills down on a drive to reduce childhood obesity. And her encounters with veterans are heart-rending: “I found a broad-shouldered young man from rural Texas who had multiple injuries and whose body had been severely burned. He was in clear agony, tearing off the bedsheets and trying to slide his feet to the floor. It took us all a minute to understand what he was doing. Despite his pain, he was trying to stand up and salute the wife of his commander in chief.”

Michelle’s disdain for Trump has been widely reported; she blames him for callously imperilling her family. Not long after he reprises “birtherism”, a gunman shoots up the White House. More glaring though is her resounding silence on the personal handover to Trump as president. Presidents and First Ladies, past and present, have formed a sodality transcending party affiliation. Trump’s sniping broke the chain.

And yet the Republic beats on. “A hand goes on a Bible; an oath gets repeated,” she writes. “One president’s furniture gets carried out while another’s comes in. Closets are emptied and refilled. Just like that, there are new heads on new pillows – new temperaments, new dreams.”

About Author

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the wife of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American First Lady of the United States. She is the winner of the category Literary Work - Biography/Auto-Biography by 50th NAACP Image Awards.
She was born and grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. After completing her formal education, she returned to Chicago and accepted a position with the law firm Sidley Austin, and subsequently worked as part of the staff of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center.

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