Con­fes­sions of a first lady

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE BOOKS - KATHRYN HUGHES

Be­com­ing Michelle Obama Vik­ing €28 ★★★★★

When Michelle Robin­son, a hot­shot lawyer at a fancy Chicago firm, was in­tro­duced to the new in­tern she’d been as­signed to men­tor, she was not im­pressed. Not only did Barack Obama have a tongue-twist­ing name, but he was late for ev­ery­thing, had ques­tion­able taste in clothes and, worst of all, he smoked. For al­pha-woman Robin­son, who’d pro­pelled her­self from blue-col­lar be­gin­nings to the heart of cor­po­rate Amer­ica by dint of work­ing harder and smarter than any­one else, here was the op­po­site of ev­ery­thing – and ev­ery­one – she had ever wanted for her­self.

We know how the story ends, of course, with Michelle Robin­son be­com­ing Michelle Obama, not to men­tion First Lady of the United States. All the same, this bril­liantly writ­ten and emo­tion­ally au­then­tic mem­oir fills in some im­por­tant gaps. She is can­did, for in­stance, about how she tried to set up the scruffy in­tern on a blind date with a friend be­fore re­al­is­ing that, ac­tu­ally, she wanted him for her­self. Not only is he just about the clever­est man she’s ever met, he has a ‘no­ble heart’ and cares more than any­one she knows about so­cial jus­tice. The fact he is pretty damn hot hardly hurts ei­ther.

In­evitably, be­ing mar­ried to a man who turns into ‘a hu­man blur’ once he de­cides to run for political of­fice is no walk in the park. Michelle tells us how she in­sists on check­ing in at one point for some mar­riage coun­selling to deal with the way they no longer find time to talk to each other. Even more trau­matic is the fact that she can’t get preg­nant – it’s the first time she’s ever failed at any­thing in her life. There is noth­ing lone­lier, she ex­plains, than in­ject­ing your­self in the thigh ev­ery morn­ing while your hus­band is busy be­ing bril­liant on the other side of the coun­try.

Once the Oba­mas, now the de­lighted par­ents of Malia and Sasha, are at the White House, life be­comes even more sur­real. No one is al­lowed to open a win­dow, even on the most swel­ter­ing day, in case an as­sas­sin takes a pot shot. Or­der­ing food reg­u­larly from the su­per­mar­ket is out of the ques­tion since it makes the fam­ily vul­ner­a­ble to a poi­son plot. In­stead, teams of un­der­cover White House shop­pers make ran­dom trips to dif­fer­ent stores to buy peanut but­ter and sushi. And then there’s the fact that the First Lady’s new clothes have to be stress-tested be­fore they are deemed fit for purpose. Michelle spends a lot of time wav­ing her arms, jump­ing and squat­ting in the pri­vacy of her bed­room be­fore she can risk go­ing be­fore the world’s mer­ci­less gaze.

It’s not just her clothes that are sub­ject to con­stant scru­tiny. The real chal­lenge for Michelle Obama, of course, has al­ways been deal­ing with the end­less com­ments that come with be­ing a black woman in pub­lic life. While her rise from work­ing-class Chicago to the White House via Prince­ton and Har­vard might seem like the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can Dream, there are still plenty of Amer­i­cans who feel it is a dream that be­longs to white peo­ple alone. With re­mark­able for­bear­ance, she de­scribes how she has been con­stantly bodyshamed – her butt is too big, she is ac­tu­ally a trans­sex­ual male. She has even been in­structed to rein in her nat­u­ral pas­sion about so­cial jus­tice for fear of seem­ing like ‘an an­gry black woman’. That she writes about these out­rages with such grace, style and, yes, hu­mour makes Be­com­ing not just a fas­ci­nat­ing read but a gen­uinely mov­ing one too.

She in­sists on coun­selling to deal with the way they no longer find time to talk each other

CloCk­wise from far left: Michelle Obama with her hus­band Barack on the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign trail; Michelle to­day; at her high school grad­u­a­tion in 1981

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