67 pages 2 hours read

Maggie Smith

You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir, by Maggie Smith, is a personal reflection on love, divorce, and grief. Smith, who catapulted to fame in 2016 when her poem “Good Bones” went viral, explores the many identities she inhabits as a contemporary woman. This work of creative nonfiction describes the history of her relationship with her husband and the evolution of her relationship with herself. Smith invites her readers to listen to her story and gather their own meaning from her heartache, loss, reflection, and hope. Maggie Smith has received two Academy of American Poets Prizes. Her poetry collection Good Bones was the winner of the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry.

This guide is based on the 2023 hardback printing by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Content Warning: This memoir discusses themes of divorce and infidelity, as well as descriptions of miscarriages.


You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir is an intimate retelling of Maggie Smith’s life as a mother, wife, and writer. Smith describes and synthesizes her emotions about many personal topics: parenting, loss, falling in love, marriage, betrayal, and identity. The work is a unique addition to the genre. Smith emphasizes that the work is not a tell-all and that there are pieces of her history that she will never be able to fully understand or remember with clarity. She offers her experience with honesty and the acknowledgment that she can only tell the story from her own perspective.

The memoir is structured as a series of vignettes in poetry and prose. Some chapter titles are repeated throughout the work to emphasize important symbols and themes. For example, the chapter title “The Material” is repeated, expanding the scope of the word material to encompass both loss and offering. The chapter title “A Friend Says Every Book Begins with an Unanswerable Question” presents a new inquiry each time it appears, marking the evolution of Smith’s recovery, anger, hope, and exploration, driving the development of the theme Divorce and Self-Discovery. Other themes presented in the work are Patriarchal Expectations in Contemporary Marriage and Divorce as Loss.

In Pages 1-30, Smith opens her husband’s work bag to discover a postcard. The piece of mail is written to a woman in a city where her husband frequently travels for work. In it, he writes about walking with the woman and finding a pinecone together; Smith notes that her husband returned from his business trip with a pinecone for their son, Rhett. She also discovers that her husband has written about the woman and her children in his journal. Smith examines their early years together and recognizes foreshadowing in the story of her own life.

Pages 31-78 detail Smith’s early marriage. She and her husband evolve from two aspiring writers to marital tropes. Two miscarriages and the birth of Rhett and Violet leave Smith with postpartum depression and a palpable shift in her marriage. She feels like a shell of her former self, angry and overwhelmed. She leaves her editing job to pursue writing full-time. When her poem “Good Bones” goes viral, Smith’s writing career catapults, furthering the divide in her marriage.

In Pages 79-139, Smith explores the aftermath of her discovery of the postcard in her husband’s bag. As her writing career continues to flourish, her husband’s resentment is palpable. She begins to see the inequity in her marriage. She goes out of her way to ensure her husband’s life is easier while she travels for work, but she cannot shake the sense that she is inconveniencing him by asking him to fulfill the daily duties of home and child care. They seek marital counseling, but Smith conceals her discovery of the postcard and journal from her husband and therapist. Over time, she grows more confident and angrier; she finally reveals what she knows, and they decide to separate.

Pages 140-197 explore Smith’s journey to finding joy and beauty in a difficult period. At times, she feels like a ghost in her home, wandering from room to room while her children spend time with their father in his rental a few blocks away. Other times, she relishes her new life, skating in the driveway with her children, snuggling with them on the couch, and enjoying the fruits of her career. Smith’s husband announces that he has decided to move 500 miles away, leaving his children behind.

In Pages 198-251, Smith deals with the aftermath of her husband’s move. She is angry for her children and the effect his leaving has on them. Therapy allows her to talk about and process her emotions without burdening friends and family. During her sessions, she learns that she is not allowing herself to feel the full breadth of her anger and sadness. Smith decides it is time to let go of the thread that keeps her connected to her husband and the pain of the divorce.

As Smith closes her memoir in Pages 252-301, she reminds the reader that she can only offer her story and hope someone finds it useful. Unlike a work of fiction with a clearly defined plot, Smith’s story is still going, and she is still asking questions. She sets boundaries with her husband, tries to stop looking for what is missing, and redefines her identity as a caregiver. You Could Make This Place Beautiful is a call to find beauty even in the hardest moments.

Related Titles

By Maggie Smith

Study Guide


Good Bones

Maggie Smith

Good Bones

Maggie Smith