This has been my favourite book of the year, and one of the best parts is that the audiobook is read by the author herself. Spending 19 hours listening to Michelle Obama speak is an experience in itself… without meaning to, I spent almost every free moment for a week with my headphones in, following along with the story of her life.
She charts the course from her early years growing up in a poor neighbourhood in South Chicago, filled with family and friends, music and a close community, to her dedication to learning, her career, getting into Princeton and then Harvard, and becoming a lawyer. You could read all this trivia on WikiPedia, but the story she tells is a deeply personal one. There are so many details and anecdotes, like when she learned to play piano on her great aunt’s chipped piano, downstairs from her family’s small apartment, with a chip in the middle C key. Since she spent all her time practicing on that piano, by the time she had to perform at a recital, she couldn’t find where to put her hands. But that same great aunt came over and put her hands in place, and set her right. She cited piano as the thing that taught her the relationship between practice, hard work, and getting better at a skill.
Her life, she describes, was an unswerving path toward professional success, and she always had a plan. But by the time she became a lawyer, she started having doubts about that plan, and was influenced by what she describes as Barack’s constant swerving. She wanted her life to have more meaning. She ended up moving to City Hall, and then to a leadership position with the University of Chicago Medical Center where she was responsible for getting the university and its health services better connected with their local community. While best known as being the First Lady of the United States, before that, she already had an incredibly impressive career.
Their lives, hers and Barack’s were already so full before he even ran for the presidency. She gives us intimate glimpses into their personal lives, from meeting a young Barack when he was a summer associate at the law firm where she worked. These are all stories we might have heard before, but here there are so many personal and unique and endearing details, like the yellow Datsun Barack drove as a student, that had a rusted out hole in the floor. Or the boyfriend Michelle had in college whose life’s ambition was to become a basketball team’s mascot.
One detail I found interesting in this book is a discrepancy between her story and Barack’s in The Audacity of Hope. Before running for the US senate, Michelle describes giving him an ultimatum that if he doesn’t get into Congress, he’ll give up politics for good and get a job with sensible hours, like working at a foundation. Barack’s story in The Audacity of Hope is that this was his idea. Details like that make me smile — a small moment where you get a glimpse into the dynamics of their relationship. These are real people in a real family that deeply care about each other, and have complicated, real, and sometimes messy lives. And they were about to leave a relatively normal existence for good.
By the time they reach the White House, we’ve spent so much time through Michelle’s life that the sheer scale and enormity of the presidency is hammered home. Going from their little lives and middle class success in Chicago to every moment of their day planned and scheduled, with motorcades and helicopters always at the ready, the detail is nearly overwhelming. Details like — the president always travels with a personal physician and a bag of blood of the correct blood type, just in case.
You get the sense that they never took the privilege and responsibility of their roles as leaders for granted, and always strived to give their kids as normal an upbringing as they could, while being “the first family”.
By the end of the book, Michelle draws the connection between her own upbringing, to the causes that mattered to her most during her time at the White House, from childhood education, health and nutrition, to tackling gun violence and the generational effects of segregation. This isn’t a book about the presidency, she doesn’t go into foreign policy, or too much into politics itself — she said that she’s never had any love for politics. But she writes passionately about the issues she cares about, and used her time in the White House to do as much good for people as she could. She writes with warmth and passion, grounding her unusual life in relatable stories, like her mother, who didn’t want to leave her small place in South Chicago and move-in to the White House, because she’d miss her community. There are also breathtakingly sad stories of gun and racial violence in the US, and she describes with great insight the challenges of progress, with reactionary politics and the machinations of political life, which she described as being no place for a good person.
Even if you have no real interest in politics, I’d whole-heartedly recommend giving this book a read. It’s relatable and personal, and is a beautifully told story of her life, her career, her marriage and her family, and a powerful expression of what it means to grow and change — what she describes as becoming.