As America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama carried out the traditional role of supportive wife and champion of worthy causes in an exemplary fashion.
But who was she really and what shaped her? She shares her life’s story, the highs and the lows, in this candid autobiography.
The first part, Becoming Me, is a coming of age story of how Michelle, a young African American girl, grew up in a cramped apartment on the South side of Chicago with loving supportive parents and older brother. A feisty clever child she was keen to achieve, a character trait which has followed her throughout her life. She first became aware of what it felt like to be the only black woman in a room after earning a place at Princeton.
The second part, Becoming Us, reads like a romance novel. High –powered Harvard trained corporate lawyer Michelle, working at a prestigious law firm, agrees to mentor an intelligent young graduate, an African American like her. At first, being career oriented and not interested in dating she briefly tries to match make him with one of her women friends. But he has his eyes set on her.
They fall in love. She discovers his deeper side, a desire to make a difference in the world and to solve inequality. It makes her reassess her own career path. Should she stop striving to go up the corporate level or find a job where her heart lies?
They marry, have difficulty conceiving, and strike a rough patch in their relationship when Barack’s political career takes off and he is often away. She tells how it was for them with disarming honesty.
In Part Three, Becoming More, she becomes the First African American First Lady. Her personal freedom is greatly curtailed but she strives to maintain a sense of normality for her two girls, champions worthy causes and becomes a powerful advocate for girls’ education and combatting America’s obesity crisis.
Michelle is accused of being an angry black woman. ‘When they go low, we go high’ becomes her mantra.
Towards the end of the book, she finally vents her anger at the then Presidential candidate Trump for endangering the life of her family and speaks out strongly against his misogyny.
Becoming by Michelle Obama is published by Penguin Viking, RRP $55
A Well Behaved Woman
Never in her wildest dreams could Alva Vanderbilt have imagined that an African American woman would one day become the First Lady. She herself was forced to give up her black maid because it was deemed inappropriate for a woman of her standing to employ her.
Alva’s story is very engagingly told by Therese Anne Fowler in A Well Behaved Woman.
Alva’s family was destitute after the American civil war. The only way she could save them was by marrying well. Aided by her best friend Consuela she managed to hook William, a member of the immensely rich Vanderbilt family.
She didn’t need to love him she just needed his money and he needed her family’s good name.
Alva fulfilled her part of the bargain brilliantly by spending most of her life working tirelessly to gain acceptance for the Vanderbilts who were shunned by New York’s old money circles. She splashed millions of dollars building nine mansions and organising glittering balls.
While I had little sympathy for Alva the consummate social climber, my heart went out to her when William became a philanderer. I admired her courage to rebel against the social conventions of the day that rich men should be allowed to womanise and their wives should just put up with it.
Alva was a complicated woman who towards the end of her life manipulated her daughter into marrying a duke. But she also became a leading light in the American Women’s Suffrage movement. It’s a shame that this part of her life is only alluded to briefly in this book.
It was interesting to compare the lives of these two powerful strong women separated by over a century so reflecting some major changes in American society. One married for money, the other for love. Once they reached the highest level of society they both lost a considerable amount of personal freedom. They had to navigate their way through an often thorny path to find a way to be true to themselves and leave their mark. Their stories make excellent summer reads.
A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler is published by Hachette RRP $34.99
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook