Friday 20 September 2019

Falling down the White House rabbit hole

Memoir: Becoming Michelle Obama, Viking, hardback, 448 pages, €26.10

Kicking back: Michelle Obama on the White House lawn with Bo, the president's dog. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Kicking back: Michelle Obama on the White House lawn with Bo, the president's dog. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Becoming Michelle
Michelle with Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Aurora Photos
A young Michelle during her time at Princeton. Photo courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives

Tanya Sweeney

First Lady memoirs are nothing new, and even though their authors are finally unshackled from the constraints of the White House, some are certainly more revealing than others.

Where Laura Bush's account was hailed as brave and intimate, the release of Nancy Reagan's in 1989 received scant fanfare.

Yet the release of Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming, heralds a move into uncharted territory. There's barely been a political title like it, much less one by a first lady: she and her husband Barack received a reported $65m from publishers to pen autobiographical titles (compared to the $5m that Bill Clinton received to write My Life from Knopf, back then an astronomical figure).

The promotional book tour for Becoming is being handled by Live Nation, agents more often preoccupied with rock and pop-star tours. Heavy-hitters like Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sarah Jessica Parker have signed up as moderators; VIP package tickets are flying off the cyber-shelves at a reported $3,000 a throw. The hype has been little short of deafening.

Much of this window dressing might ordinarily point to a triumph of style over substance, but here's the thing: Becoming has both in spades. A divine mash of the two, in fact. Brand Obama has already long been brimful of relatability, humane warmth and intellect, and so it goes in this highly polished account of Michelle Obama's unassuming upbringing, impressive career and exquisitely egalitarian marriage. The Obamas, the way Michelle masterfully tells it, are two ordinary people who fell down the most extraordinary of rabbit holes.

Becoming gets off to a gentle, if somewhat slow, start as Michelle recounts moving, some months back, into the Washington redbrick house she lives in today. Alone in the house and with no staff or Secret Service to monitor her every move, she makes herself a cheese sandwich (because she can) and sits in her own backyard, luxuriating in the simple pleasure of having the wind blow through her hair. It's a somewhat atmospheric passage and unremarkable on the face of it, until the rest of the book unfurls. The claustrophobia, the high-wire balancing acts, the give-and-take marriage, the wresting of private torments from public consumption: that 'cheese sandwich' moment is one of a woman washed ashore after a decade of tumult.

In 'Becoming Me', the first third of the book (the other sections are 'Becoming Us' and 'Becoming More'), Michelle recalls spending much of her childhood "listening to the sound of striving". By turns studious and feisty, she wanted to merely grow up and live in a two-storey house, but soon her ambition and ability saw her travel to Princeton University in the 1980s, driven there by her father, who endured multiple sclerosis. As a working-class student at the elite Ivy League school, Michelle felt she had plenty to prove, and duly over-performed. "If in high school I'd felt as if I were representing my neighbourhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race. Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point," she writes.

Later, she overhears her colleagues in a Chicago law firm lusting over the new summer associate. "In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers," she writes. Theirs was not a textbook fairytale romance from the start. Michelle may be the no-nonsense yin to Barack's idealist yang, but in the beginning of their relationship, his lateness and blithe assumption that things would go his way began to grate. A few gripes about snoring does not an unvarnished marital account make, but this is as real as a former White House denizen is ever likely to get.

The latter quality would eventually come in useful in their marriage. Becoming contains much of the Michelle Obama that the world has already seen - she is nothing if not consistently steely and focused - and plenty that the world hasn't. For the first time, Michelle reveals the IVF treatments used to conceive their daughters and, in one particularly evocative passage, a miscarriage. The Obamas sought marriage counselling as Barack's political ambitions threatened to overtake the fine equilibrium of their already busy, dynamic lives. And of course, she earns a hefty portion of that eye-watering advance writing at length about what life at the White House was really like.

"We ourselves were a provocation," she writes, in an especially clear-eyed moment. And later, "I continued to feel as if we were falling backward, our whole family in one giant trust fall... when you're married to the President, you come to understand the world brims with chaos."

Later, she is unstinting in her true thoughts on Trump, admitting that she "stopped even trying to smile" at his inauguration in 2016, a moment that was merely "the Obamas' to witness".

If the publishers wanted grit and juice for their sizeable advance, the lowdown on the Queen to Hillary, they certainly got it.

Yet for all Becoming's readability and acumen, there is the odd passage that borders on motivational-speaker terrain. The polemic, not least nearing the end of the book as Michelle outlines her current preoccupations, can start to taste a touch cloying or earnest.

Rather, it's when Michelle sticks closer to the personal and the confessional that Becoming truly comes into its own. And given who she, her husband and daughters are, and their vantage point of the world, how could it be anything else but a riveting, charming read?

At one warming final moment in the book, in the Obama's post-White House life, Michelle pinpoints a snapshot moment where Malia enrols at Harvard, Sasha finds summer work at a snack bar in Martha's Vineyard, Barack is getting to simply "sit back and feel", and her mother, who had lived the entire rollercoaster ride with the Obamas "while staying utterly and completely herself", presiding over them all.

"I was proud of us, for almost being done," she writes. As well she should have been.

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