Becoming is refined and forthright, gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, with a humbler tone and less name-dropping than might be expected of one who is on chatting terms with the queen of England. One of Obama’s strengths is her ability to look back not from the high perch of celebrity or with the inevitability of hindsight but with the anxieties of the uncertain ... Even though we all know that she and Barack Obama end up getting married and having two kids, that he wins the 2008 Iowa caucuses and that they make it to the White House, she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened. This gives the book’s first half, in particular, covering the part of her life we know least about, an unexpected suspense ... One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see.
Obama emphasizes how important role models are, especially for young women of color in a culture that isn’t changing fast enough. But this book isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. By the end of it, she ultimately champions endurance and incremental change; she will probably be lauded and lambasted accordingly ... it’s the moments when Obama tries to make sense of what she’s seeing now, in the country, that are among the most moving—if only because she’s so clearly struggling to reconcile the cleareyed realism of her upbringing, brought about by necessity, with the glamorous, previously unthinkable life she has today ... For all the attempts by conservatives a decade ago to paint her as a radical, Obama seems to be a measured, methodical centrist at heart. But hers isn’t a wan faith in expanding the pie and crossing the aisle. Her pragmatism is tougher than that, even if it will come across as especially frustrating to those who believe that centrism and civility are no longer enough. As she writes in Becoming, she long ago learned to recognize the 'universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.'
The first-lady memoir is a rite of passage, but Obama's is different by virtue of her very identity. Becoming takes her historic status as the first black woman to serve as first lady and melds it deftly into the American narrative ... her memoir is not a Washington read full of gossip and political score-settling—though she does lay bare her deep, quaking disdain for Trump, who she believes put her family's safety at risk with his vehement promotion of the false birther conspiracy theory ... Inevitably, her memoir will be compared to those of other first ladies. Her focus on owning one’s own unique story sets her book apart, but it is similar to Laura Bush's in one respect. Both women most deeply excavate the part of their life before the presidency enters.