Arts

Book Review

A complex, accomplished life recounted with confidence and candor

Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago in 2017.
Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images/file
Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago in 2017.

Michelle Obama finally had a moment of calm. Since leaving her childhood home in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood for Princeton University in 1981, her life became a wild spin of undergrad classes, Harvard Law School, work at Sidley & Austin, marriage, motherhoood, social activism, and political campaigns, capped by an eight-year stint as America’s first lady.

At last, in 2017, sitting alone in her home in the Kalorama neighborhood in Washington D.C., her girls, Sasha and Malia, now teenagers, Michelle had a Zen moment. “It was just me, our two dogs, and a silent, empty house like I haven’t known in eight years,” she writes at the beginning of her new memoir, “Becoming.’’

This isn’t a rushed account aimed to fulfill a fat publishing contract or settle scores or provide uplift (though it does). Every page sparkles with directness and grace. She writes compellingly of the complexities of marriage and family with honesty and the kind of confidence that comes of being a person of integrity who knows who she is — and is comfortable with it. Like its author, “Becoming’’ is a work of solid worth.

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Born on Jan. 17, 1964, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was a bright, well-mannered child, raised in a blue-collar, African-American homestead where jazz was the upbeat pulse. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, was a stoic, steadfast Chicago city worker who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, quit her job as a secretary and raised her children. Rules were clear: Homework was a priority; slang forbidden; attendance at nightly sit-down dinners mandatory. Scripture was recited, and songs like “Hot Cross Buns” were pounded out on the piano downstairs belonging to her Great-Aunt Robbie, a music teacher. “I spent,’’ writes a tongue-in-cheek Obama about Robbie’s students, “much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.’’

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The early chapters of “Becoming’’ happily evoke the vibrancy of Chicago’s South Shore community, 12 miles from the “otherworldly” Loop, in the racially charged 1960s and early 1970s. There are colorful reflections on Chicago Cubs legend and neighbor Billy Williams (“sweet swing from the left side of the plate”); Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book’’ “my first album”; watching “Planet of the Apes” at a drive-in (“my mother handing out a dinner of fried chicken and chips she’d brought from home”); and recreation camp along Lake Michigan.

The Robinsons instilled in their children a belief that education was the ticket to prosperity (Michelle’s older brother Craig, an NBA executive, preceded her at Princeton) and taught by example how the fangs of adversity were no match for undaunted grit. “As we grew, we spoke about drugs and sex and life choices, about race and inequality and politics,” she writes. “My parents didn’t expect us to be saints. My father, I remember, made a point of saying that sex was and should be fun.”

“Becoming’’ makes quite clear that Michelle will never run for political office. She entered public life “reluctantly” as a spouse. The limelight doesn’t appeal to her. Malia and Sasha always took precedence during her White House years. Clearly they were cherished: Obama reveals how devastated she was after a miscarriage two decades ago and that both girls were conceived through in vitro fertilization.

The difficult improvisations of being first lady abound in these pages. Looking for causes to lead she crusaded against obesity, promoted organic gardening, and rallied for better public schools.

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She is likewise forthcoming about her relationship with her husband. The two of them met while working at the Sidley & Austin law firm in Chicago. Michelle had been assigned to help mentor her handsome future husband, who was already a hot topic of water-cooler conversation among the young women in the office.

Working out the wishes, responsibilities, and roles of ambitious, accomplished marital partners is always a thorny affair (particularly with children in the mix), and the Obamas were no exception as Michelle discloses that the couple has had counseling. But that the pair share tremendous love and respect is clear. Her account of a “date night” foray, sneaking away from Washington for dinner in New York City, is Valentine lovely.

The closeness of the Obamas recalls other modern presidential couples like Rosalind and Jimmy Carter and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. However, in temperament, Michelle is perhaps a nearer clone of Barbara Bush, a no-nonsense, eagle-eyed protector, regularly keeping tabs on those who belittle or threaten her family. One way that Michelle’s public life differed from that of those other presidential wives, however, is that they never faced the “angry black woman” stereotype levied at her by detractors and Internet trolls. “A sitting U.S. congressman has made fun of my butt,” she writes. “I’ve been hurt. I’ve been furious. But mostly, I’ve tried to laugh this stuff off.”

Invariably many will focus on Obama’s disapproval of Trump. Mincing no words, she treats our current president as akin to a poison toad, not to be touched. In chilling fashion, she describes how Trump’s bigoted “birther’’ claims that her husband was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, inspired all manner of “wingnuts and kooks.” Death threats against the Obama family intensified after Trump’s racist jibes. “What if someone with an unstable mind, loaded a gun and drove to Washington?’’ she wondered. “What if that person went looking for our girls? Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.” The same kind of blithe indifference to the consequences of his exhortations that would later come to mark his presidency.

Because Trump also falsely accused President Obama of being a “secret Muslim,” conspiracy theory crackpots attacked the first family — figuratively and literally. One evening in October 2016 a lunatic driving down Constitution Avenue fired a semiautomatic rifle out of his car, hitting windows on the second floor of the White House. “It took weeks to replace the ballistic glass of the window in the Yellow Oval,” she reveals, “and I often found myself staring at the thick round crater that had been left by the bullet, reminded of how vulnerable we were.”

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When Michelle first heard Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape her “body buzzed with fury.” The misery continued. When she watched the New York real estate developer stalk Hillary Clinton on stage during the 2016 presidential debates, trying to overwhelm her presence with predatory bullying, she was incensed. This was akin, she writes, to a neon billboard blinking to women “I can hurt you and get away with it.”

As a proud feminist, Obama reflects on the pathology of male catcalls, pawing, assault, and oppression toward women. There is a nod to the #MeToo movement. When Election Day 2016 arrived, she was confident that Trump would lose, that GOP women would punish the grotesque “misogynist.” This didn’t happen. Michelle Obama, it’s clear, believes that America is paying a huge price for allowing a hatemonger into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Not that “Becoming’’ is Trump obsessed or gloomy (though her mournful remembrances of the Newtown, Conn., Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., massacres are haunting). Her grief and grievances never overwhelm. Many pages are filled with fun bits about Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, Nerf dunking with LeBron James, and discussing women’s shoes with Queen Elizabeth II. From a historical perspective the Broadway musical “Hamilton” has no bigger fan.

She takes great pride that her husband pulled America out of the Great Recession, helped broker the Paris Agreement on climate change, brought troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, endorsed same-sex marriage, and diplomatically shut down Iran’s nuclear program. There are fine vignettes about how Obamacare provided over 20 million the security of health insurance. Much was accomplished between 2009 to 2017, she asserts, without resorting to sleaze-ball political tactics, or abuse of power.

Barack and Michelle Obama long ago adopted “when they go low, we go high” as their all-seasons motto. Consequently, their White House tenure was perhaps the most squeaky-clean in modern times. Family values and personal integrity were what the Obama administration was all about. As Michelle proudly concludes, “We had held ourselves and the people who worked with us to the highest standards of ethics and decency, and we’d made it all the way through.”

BECOMING

By Michelle Obama

Crown, 448 pp., $32.50

Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown chair in humanities and professor of history at Rice University. He is author of the forthcoming “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.’’