Becoming by former United States first lady Michelle Obama is not only our first book of 2020 but is also the very first autobiography we have read at RAD Book Club!

Published in November 2018, and now an international bestseller, Michelle Obama’s memoir takes the reader all the way from her childhood in Chicago, through her university and working years, up to Barack Obama’s two terms in office, ending with their family’s departure from the White House to make way for the Trumps.

Only a small group of us met to discuss Michelle Obama’s autobiography but we had varied opinions, which led to a very animated discussion. Unusually the majority of those who had read the book had listened to it as an audiobook. Our snacks were vegetable crisps inspired by Michelle’s planting of the vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

We found that, as a narrator, Michelle Obama has an easy way of expressing herself, which made her likeable and warm. The book is split into three sections, entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. We liked how the idea of becoming who you are through your previous experiences permeated the book, giving it a structure and a rhythm. Michelle recognises that being a family member, a student, a university graduate, a lawyer, a lover, a wife, a mother, a campaigner, and the first lady of the United States have all contributed to her becoming the person that she is and she draws this thread throughout the book. For most of us, the book felt as honest and authentic as it could be under the circumstances. Life’s challenges and experiences were presented in an open, personal and intimate manner. We enjoyed hearing her own descriptions of events and places that we are familiar with from the outside such as the White House and Buckingham Palace. Those that listened to the audiobook narrated by the author, had the fun of hearing Michelle Obama singing the lyrics to the Stevie Wonder song, which was the first dance at her wedding.

The clearest message that emerges from this memoir is that of empowerment. In her role as first lady, Michelle made sure that she opened doors and gave opportunities to people who have traditionally been ignored by the educated white men that largely run US politics. She is keen that people continue to draw inspiration from her journey and incredible achievements. Whilst we all understood that this memoir personal and is deliberately not political or analytical, some of us would have found it more interesting if it had been, with our interest only picking up toward the end of the book when the presidential campaign began. We also expected that, given her Harvard education, she would have a different writing style to that shown here. Exactly half of us thought that the book felt (like the cover) too manicured, and whilst the author showed some of her private thoughts and feelings, these still only portrayed the Obama’s and their decisions in a good light. That made us wonder how much the content was actually selected by the PR team; we concluded that, given her public position and her husband’s continuing political career it is just not possible for her to write the autobiography that we were all secretly hoping for.

The book provided us with many anecdotes and stories to remember and talk about. In particular, we mentioned Michelle’s encounters with the Queen, the Obama’s night out in New York, and the petting zoo dream scene (if that doesn’t make you intrigued to read it it, nothing will!)

Our score is an indication of the good qualities of the book and of the powerful message expressed by its author: 7.5 out of 10.

This first meeting of 2020 was sadly the last meeting for one of Book Club’s longest-standing members, Mark, who has read 36 out of the 38 books that Book Club has discussed so far. His support and contributions to our discussions will be hugely missed and we wish him the very best in the future.

Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 4 February 2020 at the usual time of 1-2 pm in the Library to discuss the novel If Beal Street Could Talk by American novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin.