If you’ve been on the internet at any point since 2016, you’ve probably seen Maggie Smith’s viral poem “Good Bones.” It’s breathtakingly sad and also the tiniest bit hopeful, and any time the world seems especially disastrous, it pops up all over social media as a way to put words to unspeakably hard situations. At only seventeen lines, “Good Bones” is evocative and restrained, with a clarity and precision that leave you a little bit awed. It’s the kind of writing that looks effortless but is, in fact, painstakingly, exquisitely crafted – much like Smith’s recent memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful.
From the very first pages of You Could Make This Place Beautiful, it’s evident that you’re in the hands of a poet. The disintegration of her marriage and her subsequent recovery is chronicled in vignettes ranging from a few sentences to a few paragraphs long. All bear the same lyricism and rhythm found in Smith’s works. The effect is that each chapter gets plenty of white space, giving you time to absorb the words before rushing to find out what happens next.
This isn’t the typical divorce memoir – Smith is less interested in laying bare the fault lines and fractures in her marriage than she is in figuring out how she got here. The book shifts back and forth in time, choosing carefully distilled moments to reveal bigger truths or ask fresh questions. She uses all the tools in her poet’s kit to examine the life she once had, the grief she has endured, and the things she still holds dear – most notably her children, her sense of wonder, and her writing.
Despite the topic, the book doesn’t feel weighed down by sadness. Partly that’s the format, but it’s also Smith’s voice – thoughtful, vivid, and honest, angry and tender and wry. It is a story about secrets and loss, but it’s also a story about motherhood and creativity and creating a life that feels true. If you’re a fan of Ann Patchett or Mary Laura Philpott’s essay collections, or you’ve enjoyed Smith’s other works, this singular, stunning memoir is a great choice.