David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, a 1,460-page haute-tabloid tome, came under critical fire before it was even released this month. One glaring issue for the author of a Pulitzer-winning Martin Luther King Jr. biography: his treatment of the race and love life of the 20-something who would go on to become President.
The author relies heavily on interviews with a former girlfriend, Sheila Miyoshi Jager, with whom Obama lived in the 1980s, as if that relationship were the key to understanding his personality. Obama’s split from her is framed as a rejection of white women (Jager is half-Japanese) in favor of the optics that would come from having a black wife. Although Garrow details the sexual chemistry between Obama and his white girlfriends, the former President’s relationship with Michelle Obama is presented as businesslike.
Observers of the Obamas’ 25-year marriage will find the characterization of their romance as merely political plainly out of touch. Despite Obama’s many achievements as an adult, Rising Star‘s epilogue returns to Jager, who claimed in 2014 that “something changed in him after we went our separate ways … as if the part of him that was so vulnerable and open (and sensual?) went underground … raging ambition, quest for greatness, whatever just took over instead.” Would that we could all take credit for our exes’ success after being left behind.
This appears in the May 22, 2017 issue of TIME.