A first lady who knows unicorns are real
You learn a lot from Michelle Obama’s candid autobiography, and perhaps the most surprising thing is this — Barack Obama was a nightmare to be married to. Indeed, perhaps still is.
It’s a miracle they got together, given their opposing temperaments. He was chronically, almost pathologically, late. She was obsessively on time. He smoked. She hated smoke.
“To me, he was sort of like a unicorn,” she writes in Becoming, “unusual almost to the point of seeming almost unreal.”
Her romance with Mr Unicorn is surprising in every way. And it appears to be the only rash thing she has done in her tick-box life.
The first third of this book is devoted to her childhood in Chicago’s South Side. She lived with her older brother, Craig, her stay-at-home mum, Marian, and her boiler-fixer father, Fraser, in a small upstairs flat. She was studious and a control freak even as a young girl, not wanting to invite friends over for fear they would mess up her tidy dolls.
She worked hard at school, got into Prince- ton, studied sociology, then law, for no other reason than — tick — it was the safe thing to do. It wasn’t long before she was ensconced in a sleek high-rise law office in Chicago, ticking yet more boxes.
This is where she met Barack; she was his mentor and, although his reputation preceded him, she wasn’t impressed. “In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers.”
After a while, as they started dating, Michelle herself seems to go rather bonkers. “I was gripped all over again by the sense of how special he was,” she gushes.
He returned to law school back east while she stayed in Chicago, suggesting they com- municate with each other by letter. “I’m not much of a phone guy,” he announced.
Michelle told him to become a phone guy. He did. It was a rare capitulation. The only other area in which she appears to win out is marriage. She was pro, he against, but his proposal, a ring presented by a waiter at a restaurant as the dessert, was wildly romantic.
What fascinates throughout this 448-page book is the extent of their differences.
“If my family was a square, then Barack’s was a more elaborate piece of geometry,” she writes, gloriously elliptically. This is code for exotic: his mum was white, his dad black Kenyan, and they were married only briefly. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Michelle, on the other hand, had American roots that stretched back generations, in Chicago and the south — she is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave.
He likes solitude, she loves company. He’s messy and chaotic. She’s neat and organised. She makes no bones about disliking politics. “I had little faith in politics. Politics had tradition- ally been used against black folks,” she writes. “I had grandparents who’d lived through the horror of Jim Crow laws and the humiliation of housing discrimination and basically mistrusted authority of any sort.”
The book is split into three sections: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, Becoming More. That’s a lot of gerunds. The first section, about her childhood, is written with the clarity and descriptive power of a novel. I was riveted by the detail and family dynamics. Her father, disabled with multiple sclerosis, never missed a day of work until the very end. Her parents poured their life savings into giving their children opportunities.
Michelle, now 54, is refreshingly frank about her shortcomings, including her inability to swerve from the appointed path. However, it is when Barack enters the picture that she starts to pull some punches here.
The start of their marriage feels distinctly rocky. There is the fact, for instance, that six weeks after the ceremony he decided the ideal way to finish writing his overdue book was to go