The first thing you should know is that I adore Michelle Obama. I love her for being grounded and relatable and funny and successful and uncompromising. If you take issue with any of the attributes I listed, it’s probably a sign that this is not going to be a book for you. If you feel like you don’t actually know enough about Michelle Obama to judge yet, give it a read and I’m confident you’ll come out on her side.
Parts of me were hesitant to read this book. First, I worried that given how much I hate the current administration, looking back at what we had would be physically painful. Instead, it gave me the lift I needed to face the newspaper headlines and get through the next two years until there’s another presidential election.
My other worry was that since I’m already a self-professed Michelle Obama fanboy, I wondered if reading her autobiography would be like entering an echo chamber in which all my own pre-conceived notions are repeated to me. I also tend not to like celebrity memoirs because they tend to feel airbrushed of substance and carefully controlled by a publicist to smooth out any potential rough edges (note that I’m including political memoirs in that category because essentially it’s the same problem). Instead, I found a refreshingly candid book that isn’t afraid to be complicated.
In talking about her childhood, Michelle Obama isn’t afraid to talk about the difficulties of growing up poor in the South Side of Chicago–a neighborhood that experienced white flight during her childhood and quickly became labeled a “ghetto.” She doesn’t shy away from how unfair it is to leave people living in these neighborhoods behind–and she isn’t afraid to call out the racism inherent to the systems that abandon those people. She’s also honest and reflective on the things that helped her become a success story: her mother’s perseverance and attention to her studies, interest and support from teachers and mentor figures, and her own ethic that hard work will get results–not to mention a righteous stubbornness that made her unwilling to back down from challenges.
Discussing her Ivy League college and post-grad work (and subsequent fast-track career at a law firm), Michelle Obama is candid about how her ambition and desire to prove herself led her to make mistakes about what she had wanted in life or how she had defined success. She also relates how meeting her eventual husband, Barack, inspired her to let go of her fear and recalibrate her professional life so it would be more fulfilling.
She talks about family with an understanding that balancing work and personal time is incredibly difficult–about the struggles of adapting her desires to be a good mom with her desire to have a career. She talks with wonderful honesty about the difficulties of her husband entering politics and the strain it put on their family. It’s perhaps the best rendering of a relationship in a memoir that I’ve read yet–how important it is to understand your partner and their dreams as well as why you react to things they do the way you do in order to achieve balance.
I also really enjoy Michelle Obama’s central premise, which is that we are never done growing or learning. We are always changing, always entering a new stage and becoming something else (hopefully, something better).
The book does, naturally, close with the inauguration of Donald Trump. Here, Michelle Obama does seem to be careful with her tone for the first time. You can tell that she’s holding back a lot of what she would like to say, but what she does say is nonetheless exquisite. Instead of giving in to anger or irritation, she points out that we as a people have been through times like this before. What’s important is that we don’t despair but keep going to make the future better. It will take work, it will take time, but society is also in a perpetual state of becoming, and it’s up to us to shape it.
I adored this book and I am grateful for the lift it gave me. This was exactly the book I needed at this point in time.