You Could Make This Place Beautiful
by Maggie Smith

“Maybe this is the story of two human beings who committed to each other very young and didn’t survive one another’s changes.” – Maggie Smith

This is a self-declared “tell-mine” memoir in beautiful and brief bits of prose. It is not a “tell-all.” Rather, Maggie Smith, a poet, writes her story of the disintegration of her marriage due to infidelity, her plight as a mom of two young kids, and her own discovery of beauty and womanhood. We have to add also that she muses poignantly on being a writer. Is it a “real” job? What does it mean for a woman? A mom?

Lara: I want to thank you for reading this with me. I heard about it last year and knew instantly that I wanted to read it. First, I love a memoir. Second, if it’s a memoir written by someone who is adept at writing, I am even more in.

Jennifer: You’re sweet. I had no problem reading this. I do want us to discuss the concept of the memoir–and what it means. I think we feel a bit differently about it, but the same too. First, you liked it? Why?

Lara: Yes, I loved it. I think she very beautifully described the acute pain, grief, and loss she experienced at the demise of her marriage while, at the same time, sharing the beauty and wonder at how that relationship started. I think anyone who has survived divorce or breakdown of a significant relationship–and I mean a breakdown, not a fade away, not a relationship that “ran its course”–can relate to even a small part of her story. 

Jennifer: I loved it too! I think you loved it a bit more than I–but that’s fine. For me, it had a similar appeal that the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal had–these beautifully written bits and pieces, like, hmmm, scattered jewelry under the ring tray thingy in a jewelry box? But Rosenthal was maybe light, happy. Smith is the darker side. I don’t mean that harshly. I’m dark too. Dark might be depth.

An Amy moment in Smith:

“December 5, 2011 This morning, Violet declared her stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dog to be, and I quote, ‘a casual genius.’”

I love that. I feel it. I think I spent the early years of motherhood chasing after my kids for their casual genius moments. 

The difference between Amy and Smith, as said by Smith:

Sometimes I feel like I titled this book Kittens and Rainbows, and then I wrote hell.”

Hey, that’s okay!

In all the sorrow, Smith is not without humor:

“No, Shutterfly, I don’t want to see my life eight years ago today, thanks.”

Lara: That’s an interesting comparison. Smith experienced the betrayal of her husband, Rosenthal, the betrayal of her body (cancer). I think those experiences, while similar, can leave you with less gratitude for your life (due to your ex’s infidelity) and more hope (life for your family after you are gone). And, I am not sure we should try to quantify or apply meaning to people’s pain. Pain is pain. Pain is relative. Pain is one own’s experience. 

Jennifer: Okay, so memoir. It’s a “tell-mine.” I made the mistake (?) of reading goodreads’ one-star reviews (1%) of the reviews, and people called it whiny, exhausting, self-indulgent. . . I want to say this. I truly have no problem saying those things about the writing shared. I’ll judge the work as it stands. I feel a-okay calling out someone’s WRITING as whiny. To me, it’s not the same thing as saying that to a person. A book might be whiny. HOWEVER, the writing can be the redemption. Is Smith trying to understand her reality? Is stressing over one’s kids “too much”? Is wrestling with the life one has following divorce/betrayal over-the-top? I don’t think so . . . If I disagree with her choices–and, my guess is that I’m not as secular as she–I feel okay saying that I disagree But let’s recognize her superior skills. Art, friends, is–I think!–SELF-INDULGENT. Maggie Smith is not whining. She is making something beautiful. Art is self-indulgent.

You think any of us are going to bare our souls if we don’t think we have something to say?

Lara: Memoir is SELF-INDULGENT. It’s saying, I think this experience in my life is important enough to write, publish, and share with the world. Me. Look at me. Read my story. You don’t have to agree with it. But when you review it, I think it’s different to call out a real-life person on the choices they made versus a fictional character. There’s a lot of toxicity and lack of empathy on the interwebs, and I think this strikes me as an area where a reader doesn’t have to agree but can be kind. It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior and say all the things you would or wouldn’t do when you have no earthly idea how you would respond if presented with the same life experience.

Jennifer: I remember running into this a bit with Dirtbag, Massachusetts. Actually, we fully got into it on this review. I stand by my views. I think Smith’s voice is authentic, richer, though.

And, Lara, you should read Gina Frangello’s Blow Your House Down. LIKE RIGHT NOW.

Another issue with memoir. Does she say too much?

Lara: That’s an interesting question. Does she say too much for whom? It’s her story. If I feel like she’s sharing too much, I tend to think that’s my issue not hers. Now, that’s easier said than really thought through. She has kids who will read this at some point and read the choices their father and mother made. So, I don’t know. She made the choice she needed to make at the time she made them. She’s also a writer. And writers process through storytelling. Just like musicians process through their art. They have an outlet that the majority of us don’t. 

Jennifer: I know I personally think quite a bit about this. I too have kids. My poor husband has to deal with my exposure; I tend to protect my kids’ privacy but not his. And I’ve definitely felt extended family woe from his side of the family, and mine. Ultimately, though, I think writers gotta write

You mentioned in conversation that it was her therapy. To which I say, Amen

I write as therapy. And it’s the most effective.

Lara: Yeah, I really agree with that. We see comedians process trauma through humor. Artists evolve through their art. Smith writes:

“I thought of our life together as a life in words. I thought it was a beautiful life.”

“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”

“It’s a mistake to think of one’s life as plot, but there’s foreshadowing everywhere.”

“In life there are people in pain, people who are broken and making decisions from a place of brokenness, people living with wounds we can’t see–and these people, the fallible human beings, are our mothers and fathers, our husbands and wives, our sisters and brothers, our children, our teachers.”

“I had been trying to save the marriage, but needed to save myself.”

“The worst had happened, and somehow I’d made something good—something beautiful from it.”

Jennifer: Yeah, she has a lot of great insights on the Writing Life. (And you’re right about comedians, who–in my opinion–are often very thoughtful.)

I gotta say that there really is this aching need to justify one’s writerly existence, like, 24/7. I love this passage:

“After I returned from California, in a meeting in my lawyer’s office—my lawyer and I on one side of the conference table, my husband and his on the other—my husband’s lawyer used air quotes when she talked about my work. When you were ‘working,’ she said.”

Lara: It seemed as though things started to break down when a poem she wrote, called Good Bones, went viral. Imagine! A poem! Being read by Meryl Streep. Appearing on an episode of Scandal! So this “career” he said she had, this “writing” that he belittled, actually WAS something. And if you haven’t read it, here you go:

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Here’s the thing. He never respected her work and what it brought to the marriage and her life. If there’s any big lesson here–women, you and your professional and personal pursuits matter as much as your partner’s.

Let’s go back to the question you posed at the beginning. Who is the YOU in this title?

I think it’s her mantra to herself. I think it’s a call to action to readers everywhere. We have the power to make our place in the world a beautiful one – despite what we may experience. It, to me, goes along with the idea that things don’t happen TO you. They happen FOR you. For you to still make the most of your one precious life (intended hat tip to poet Mary Oliver). 

Jennifer: And a shoutout to that beautiful cover! 

I’ll conclude with two more quotes. I did love this book. I do not share her world, but this is a very lovely and true sentence: 

“We are all nesting dolls, carrying the earlier iterations of ourselves inside….” 

So, is she exhausting or self-indulgent–or is she extricating her identity with very fine prose?

Finally, here’s a pretty: 

“I’d packed my sadness, despite its enormous size. Each day I lugged it down to the beach with my towel and beach chair and sunglasses and paperback and sunblock and water bottle.”

Lara: I will close with pretty too: 

“The thing about birds: If we knew nothing of the jays or wrens nor sparrows, we’d believe the trees were singing, as if each tree has its own song. 

The thing about this life: If we knew nothing of what was missing, what has been removed, would look full and beautiful.”

Jennifer: What else have you been reading?

Lara: I am steadily reading, and it has mostly been great. The most buzzed about book right now, James by Percival Everett is a retelling of Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s point of view and it’s worthy of all the praise and accolades it’s receiving. Amanda Peters’ The Berry Pickers is a great dual-timelined story about a native girl kidnapped one summer while she and her family are picking berries for for work, and the resultant trauma from that experience. And then I read an award-winning Japanese literary thriller, Out, by Natsuo Kirino and it is wildly violent, over the top intense, and I am not sure how I feel about it. 

Jennifer: Well, I’m reading a weird one; the verdict is very much out. Matthew Stokoe’s Cows. I seriously am not sure why I picked it up, though there is a cow on the cover. I guess it’s categorized as splatterpunk. This is a new term for me. Graphic, gory, horror. Yes, I’m reading this. Along with The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness by John Haidt. This book is scaring the bejeebers out of me. We’re in trouble, Lara. Poot Gen Z! Still reading Barbra Streisand . . .

Next Up! 

Join us next time for beloved attorney-turned-novelist Amor Towles and his latest endeavor, Table for Two.