A first lady who knows uni­corns are real

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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