No one could accuse Michelle Obama of lingering in her husband’s shadow. But few expected her to emerge as America’s queen of non-fiction.
Far from being a mere postscript to her White House years, the former US first lady’s memoir, Becoming, has proved a literary phenomenon and turning point in her career, dominating bestseller lists and filling stadiums during a promotional tour. And such is Michelle Mania that last month, she stole the show from the biggest stars in music by making a surprise appearance at the Grammy awards.
“She’s a rock star at this point. She’s now a political celebrity, ” said Lissa Muscatine, a co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookshop in Washington and former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton.
It is true that, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, while John F Kennedy’s widow spent two decades as a book editor.Hillary Clinton, of course, became a dominant political figure in the Democratic party, a senator, a secretary of state and a two-time presidential candidate.
But Michelle Obama is also now carving a niche as a hyper-prominent former first lady and her post-White House career is probably only beginning.
Becoming, published in November, sold more than 1.4m copies in its first week and is now one of the bestselling books of the decade. According to CNN, it was the most-sold book on Amazon across all formats for 47 consecutive days, the longest streak of any book since the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey in 2012. Recently, challengers have briefly knocked it off top spot, but this week it was back at No 1 on the non-fiction list.
Unlike many autobiographies, Becoming, 426 pages long and published byPenguin Random House, is politically frank and personally revealing. Obama made news by writing that she and Barack Obama sought marriage counselling and struggled to get pregnant after she had a miscarriage,eventually undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to conceive their two daughters.
The first African American first lady also wrote that she will “never forgive” Donald Trump for pushing conspiracy theories about her husband’s birthplace which, she says, put her family’s life in danger from “wingnuts and kooks”. But the book also strikes a fine balance, managing not to turn into an anti-Trump rant.
It was the top-selling title last year at Politics and Prose, a Washington institution. Muscatine said: “Political memoirs are typically not that interesting because they’re often written to correct a record or cement a legacy. But she was able to tell her own story, she’s a smart woman and she knew what she wanted to say. She does enough to make it enjoyable and compelling and entertaining.”
Obama may also have inadvertently benefited from the current political climate. Muscatine added: “People living through Trump have shown a yearning, a nostalgia for the Obamas even though it’s only been a few years. They miss a husband and wife in the White House who took the jobs seriously. So when there’s anything Obama, people want more of it.”
Obama has embarked on a long book tour that has drawn huge crowds and arrives at The O2 in London on 14 April, where she will be interviewed by leading late night TV host Stephen Colbert. Such is her popularity, people have flocked to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington to view a painting of her by artist Amy Sherald. The gallery, which also gained a portrait of Barack Obama, had around a million more visitors in 2018 than 2017.