WRITE, READ, LIVE

Memoir Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama


Cover of Michelle Obama's book, Becoming

What I liked

The Preface. I LOVED it. I felt as though I was being welcomed into the home of a new friend. Like the person, it was warm and engaging – the writing was lyrical, the welcome inviting. I felt that Michelle Obama was letting her guard down. She was removing the public persona and inviting the reader in – to put her feet up on the couch with a cup of tea – and to get to know her, Michelle Obama, the woman. I felt that was the promise of the book.

What I didn’t like

I wasn’t too far into the book when I realised that the promise of the preface didn’t fit with the book, and I started to feel cheated. The warmth of the welcome evident in the preface was replaced by distance. I noticed it initially in the writing. The closeness and intimacy of what I felt was Michelle Obama’s own voice in the preface became perfunctory and polished. Her warm personality cooled into the mechanics of telling her story.

As I read, I constantly sensed that this wasn’t a personal interaction between Michelle, the storyteller, and me, the reader. Rather, I sensed that there was another presence on the page. I had to wonder if it was that of a ghostwriter, one who was not staying hidden well enough and who was struggling to replicate the voice in the preface authentically. Instead of a tantalising experience of coming to know Michelle Obama, the woman more personally, I felt I got the professional cardboard cut-out with some colour added in, and with someone else telling me the story. Although it eased as I got further into the book – or was it that I got used to it – it was an experience that persisted for the entirety of the book.

Now that’s not to say that Becoming isn’t well written. It certainly is. Whoever it was who wrote the book has a great command of the English language and superb writing skills. But I felt there was a distinct difference between the voice in the preface, that drew me in invitingly, and the one that goes on to tell the story – and that raised my suspicion and unsettled me from the start.

What was conflicting about Becoming?

I was expecting a memoir and I got an autobiography. Again, I felt I was offered one thing and got another. Becoming is promoted and presented as a memoir but it is all autobiography.

What’s the difference you might ask. And what is the big deal?

I’m going to give you as succinct a definition of both to illustrate my point. If you want more detail about the difference between the two, you can read more about that here.

Let’s start. Although a memoir and an autobiography are both about you and your story, they differ in a few ways. The biggest difference is in their function. With a memoir the writer wants to convey a theme about life or a truth to the reader and uses his or her life to do that. The reader becomes the point of the writing, and the writer tells his or her story in such a way as to impact the reader in some way.

With an autobiography, the writer tells about his or her life chronologically, documenting all that is of value and interest about their lives, from small inconsequential facts to larger occurrences of great substance. It’s all there. Little is excluded because it is essentially a historical narrative about a person and written by that person. The reader is the bystander, gleaning information about the writer and, if that person is famous, getting to rub shoulders with him or her for a moment.

With that in mind, Becoming fits the description of autobiography perfectly. Essentially, it is a chronological and historical account of Michelle Obama’s life recorded for prosperity. And although Michelle Obama does reveal some personal things about herself, they’re mostly superficial, and you don’t really get to know her at a deeper level. She’s there but, at the same time, she is out of reach.

So why is that such a big deal for me?

I kept asking myself that same question, and I came to realise that I felt cheated. Feeling cheated was not an experience I was expecting from a book of this calibre.

If Becoming was presented as an autobiography instead of as a memoir, I would’ve brought a different reader expectation to it. Hence, I wouldn’t have struggled so with the voice, with the pedantic progression of the story, or with the contrived closeness that wasn’t quite hitting the mark. I wouldn’t have constantly felt that something was off. Rather, I would have got what I was expecting.

Every book makes a promise, and for me, Becoming wasn’t living up to its promise as a memoir.  

What disappointed me about the book?

Becoming didn’t touch my heart. It gave me some food for thought, and I got to know more about Michelle Obama, but it didn’t greatly inspire me.

I feel traitorous saying this because I know Becoming is highly acclaimed. It sold off the shelf before it even hit the shelf – clear evidence of how well-esteemed and much-loved Michelle Obama is, and rightly so. But I don’t think that Becoming fulfilled its role as a memoir. I never felt her losses, her pain, her struggles, or her successes as my own. I heard about them and turned the page.

Let me illustrate my point.

The illness and death of Michelle Obama’s vivacious friend, Suzanne Alele, of cancer at the tender age of 26 did not leave me aching for the loss of such a young life. Yes, I thought it unfair and even cruel. But that was it, I thought it. It didn’t resonate in my heart or hit me at the core of my being. It didn’t cause me to feel the unfairness of some of the hard losses in my own life. It didn’t cause me to falter and pause, to reflect. Instead I scowled, thought about the hardness of life, kept reading, and turned the page.

I never felt the importance of the occasion because I never felt Michelle Obama’s loss. I heard about it. The writing did not convey her deep feelings about her friend’s death, or her profound regret at not hastening to her friend’s side sooner. I didn’t cry with Michelle Obama, because I never sensed her crying.  I heard it, I never felt it. Instead, it felt more like someone telling me about the story of a friend of a friend. Sad. Difficult. Unfortunate, for sure. But it didn’t stop me in my reading, or my day, and cause me to reflect on the hard losses of life.

Key Memoir Ingredient

As an autobiography, it’s a good read. As a memoir, it falls short. The lesson here is to know the structure and protocols of the genre you have chosen to tell your story and to use them appropriately, and well.

What did engage me and what did I learn?

I was most engaged with the story when Michelle Obama moved into the White House and gave us a look at presidential living. The enforced silence of goldfish bowl living behind closed windows was palpable. I came to appreciate my simple un-famous life even more.

I believe the best marriages, the ones worth emulating, have been through the scrutiny of marriage counselling and aren’t embarrassed to say so. The Obamas, I learnt, are no exception. Good marriages are earned, they don’t arrive on a silver platter.

I was enlightened, at a new level, to the vitriolic suspicion of politics and the win at all cost meanness of it all. I would agree with Michelle Obama that I wouldn’t want to have any part of it either.

I felt most connected with Michelle Obama when she described herself as being “female, black and strong, which translated to angry”, when she was slated in the media as being “a too-tall, too-forceful … political wife”, and when it was debated as to whether she was “Refreshingly Honest or Too Direct?” It resonated with my own sense of how as female we are often too ‘something’.

I compared all the personal hits Michelle Obama took while campaigning with how highly she is now regarded by many. From all that mud-slinging, and worse, she is now pure gold. And that is a testimony to the calibre of woman she is, and the tireless and exemplary work she did in her time as FLOTUS. It also speaks to her own realisation and subsequent strategy that “if you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”

Admittedly, I might be one of the few people on the planet who plodded through Becoming, and when I shut the book – finally – I knew that the book I am most keen to read is the memoir I hope Michelle Obama will write 25 years hence. Now that her autobiography is out of the way, I hope to read her true memoir, the one that picks up where the preface left off. One that will stir me at my core and change me, not just enlighten me.

Perhaps my own sentiments are best expressed in the words a reader of When God Says No made in comparison with Becoming. He commented that Michelle Obama “reveals some things about herself but I enjoyed your book more than Michelle Obama’s. I learnt more about life and myself from your memoir. One of the few things I got from her book was, when someone goes low, go higher. But it didn’t impact me on a personal level. It didn’t change me. Your book did.”

As I hadn’t yet read Becoming, I was flattered by the high praise. I now realise that we weren’t comparing apples with apples. We were comparing a memoir, and a personal narrative memoir at that, with an autobiography, a historical narrative, masquerading as a memoir.

Michelle Obama, one day, when the time comes, I hope to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and welcome you into my home, as I read your memoir.

Have you read some of my other memoir reviews:

Educated by Tara Westover

The Measure of My Powers by Jackie Kai Ellis

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

You can find my three most recent blog posts right here.

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