After a year and a half on the market, Becoming by Michelle Obama has sold more than 10 million copies. The audiobook is still one of Audible’s bestsellers, and booksellers say they can hardly keep the book in stock. Apparently, even now readers cannot get enough of one woman’s story of coming to be who she is.
Listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, is a different, richer experience. My kids jokingly began to call Obama my “invisible friend,” so often did they hear wafts of the former first lady, in a rich, genial tone, relating Becoming in all corners of our home.
Listening to the book is a 19-hour affair, after all. So I listened while cooking, cleaning, and puttering in the backyard. We all listened for an hour or two on a road trip in April. I began to look forward to the little snatches of time I spent not only reading one of the most popular books of our day, but also listening to Obama’s well-paced, warmly delivered narration. Precisely because Obama is so famous, listening to her voice adds another dimension, a vulnerable and authentic breadth that endeared me to her.
Going in, I was extremely interested in whether I would find her book to be “political.” I had heard friends and foes of the Obama administration say the book was not political, but I didn’t know how that could be, given her role as former first lady. Now, having listened to the book, I can confirm that the first 11 hours or so are not political, but the rest may seem that way depending on the listener’s politics.
Hopefully by then, listeners will be won over by Obama the woman, mother, daughter and friend. Maybe they will believe her heart is genuine, regardless if they disagree with her views or her husband’s policies. Maybe not.
I was touched by Michelle—not Michelle Obama the public personality—but Michelle as a daughter. Her adoration of her hard-working and ultimately ailing and dying father and strong, stay-at-home mother is touching and personal. Growing up, the young Miss Robinson dreamed of stepping into the shoes of her two heroes, her mother and Mary Tyler Moore. She wanted to be a wonderful mother like her own and have a fulfilling career like TV’s iconic Tyler Moore. Michelle the mama reveals a deeply maternal side, expressing a fierce desire to protect her daughters from those who would harm them.
The first half of the book is best, as it unspools in cozy details of her childhood and coming of age on the South Side of Chicago. Here Obama is most revelatory and least guarded. She talks about the losses that have shaped her, including that of her father and her college roommate. Anyone who has lost a friend or a parent can relate.
“It hurts to live after someone has died,” she writes. “It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open a fridge.” Listening to her describe these losses, I imagined I heard the tiniest quiver of emotion in her voice, making these parts of the memoir indelible.
Things become more airbrushed at the part of the story when Barack Obama runs for president. It’s as if she begins to choose her words with much greater care, but who can blame her? In addition to being widely admired, she was and is also much criticized.
The former president is a character in the book, but he is not the main focus. However, it is Michelle the wife who fascinates and compels the most. Her devotion to her husband, and the way her voice softens just a little bit when she talks about him, make listening to “Becoming” that much more engaging. It’s a book—and audiobook—that stands the test of time. (Crown/Audible)