Why I Want to Read “The Obamas”

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I wasn’t lucky enough to get an early peek at “The Obamas,” the just-released book about the First Couple and their family, how they’ve fared living inside the Washington, D.C beltway, and the impact their experiences have had on their personal lives. (I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive via my Amazon Prime account!) The advance reviews of the new book by New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor suggest that it’s a compelling read, with lots of inside information about the First Family’s struggles, both personally and professionally. But some critics are wondering how much is fact and how much is Kantor’s spin, in light of the fact that she hasn’t interviewed the Obamas themselves since 2009.

The aspect I’m looking forward to most is what this book will tell us about Michelle Obama and her behind-the-scenes influence as First Lady. Not because I’m a voyeur, but because the story of how an accomplished professional woman used to speaking her own mind and being in control of her own destiny, who suddenly finds that way of life yanked out from under her, will resonate in numerous ways with many working women. Clearly the usual “work/life” balance issues so many of us juggle pale in comparison to what Michelle Obama has had to adjust to, but it sounds like the revelations about the impact that White House living has had on her life and marriage paint a picture of a woman trying to maintain her identity and voice, while navigating the dangerous political waters of being perceived as over-stepping the traditional role of a White House wife.

As a woman who came of age at about the same time as Mrs. Obama, that’s a story I want to read.

One review written by journalist and political spouse Connie Schultz remarks that it was clear from Kantor’s reporting that, “Mrs. Obama struggled with her changed role — in the world at large but also in her family. It was impossible to take her girls to school, or sometimes even attend their soccer matches, without embarrassing them with the accompanying ruckus. She also felt new limitations in her marriage — imposed, not by the president, but by his presidency. An accomplished professional, smart and wickedly funny, she was used to being Mr. Obama’s partner. Now his day was scheduled in five-minute increments, and she was abruptly recast as his helpmate.”

It can’t be easy to go from a life where friends and family can come and go at will to one where everyone has to be vetted by the Secret Service. How many of us would be upset if we were forced to switch our routine from being a regular at our children’s schools and soccer games to one of having to forgo a major part of our kids’ lives because of the security disruptions? And then, on top of that, how would any of us fare with having to navigate the waters of being a first among first couples, as the Obamas are as the first African-American First Family?

Even before the book was released, the White House denounced many of the accounts of Michelle Obama’s policy influence and frustrations with the President’s staff as mere gossip. But Kantor told the TODAY Show that she had access to “top aides, close friends,” and Mrs. Obama’s East Wing staff, who shared many of the stories in her book. Kantor has spent years making herself an expert on the Obamas, their life together, who they are as individuals and how they relate to one another. In the world of narrative non-fiction, it’s the job of the writer to make observations and draw logical conclusions based on those facts. That’s what we expect from writers of compelling non-fiction books. Without that, their stories would nothing more than dry timelines.

Schultz says in her New York Times review — “In lesser hands ‘The Obamas’ would be an act of astonishing overreach, but Ms. Kantor … has earned the voice of authority. A meticulous reporter, Ms. Kantor is attuned to the nuance of small gestures, [and] the import of unspoken truths.” And isn’t that the kind of book we all want to read? One that gives us insight and perspective into a story that’s more than just an account on the evening news?

A version of this post was written for iVillage, where I’m helping to head up the sites 2012 election coverage.

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