The Sum of Trifles

Order from University of Georgia Press, from, or from your favorite bookseller

Book cover with image of cut porcelain cups

When Julia Ridley Smith’s parents died, they left behind a virtual museum of furniture, books, art, and artifacts. Between the contents of their home, the stock from their North Carolina antiques shop, and the ephemera of two lives lived, Smith faced a monumental task. What would she do with her parents’ possessions?

Smith’s wise and moving memoir in essays, The Sum of Trifles, peels back the layers of meaning surrounding specific objects her parents owned, from an eighteenth-century miniature to her father’s prosthetics. A vintage hi-fi provides a view of her often tense relationship with her father, whose love of jazz kindled her own artistic impulse. A Japanese screen embodies her mother’s principles of good taste and good manners, while an antebellum quilt prompts Smith to grapple with her family’s slaveholding legacy. Along the way, she turns to literature that illuminates how her inheritance shaped her notions of identity and purpose.

The Sum of Trifles offers up dark humor and raw feeling, mixed with an erudite streak. It’s a curious, thoughtful look at how we live in and with our material culture and how we face our losses as we decide what to keep and what to let go.

“Julia Ridley Smith’s Sum of Trifles is a beautifully crafted, elegiac journey. These essays-memories and mysteries of the author’s eccentric parents and their eclectic collections, as well as moving meditations on writing, marriage, and motherhood-are rich and compelling. A wonderful exploration of grief and the joy left behind.” Jill McCorkle, author of Hieroglyphics

” ‘In gilding the rifts, you ascribe beauty to the brokenness, inviting anyone to see how, treated tenderly, it can shine.’ Julia Ridley Smith is referring here to an object in need of mending, but the sentence describes everything that is true and raw and generous and emotionally satisfying about this book. Smith’s knowledge that loss can only be understood through form makes this the best book I have ever read about grief. It helps a lot that I did not read one page without intelligence and humor, and more often than not, both at once.” Michael Parker, author of Prairie Fever

“I love reading about rules, and I also love reading about stuff, so of course I loved Julia Ridley Smith’s moving, witty, beautifully written look at what it means to reckon with the trifles and treasures left behind by her parents, former antique store owners and perennial, opinionated collectors. This book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end, and Smith’s keen observations and insight provide a great opportunity for conversation: how women navigate family responsibilities in that ‘sandwich generation’ time of life when they have both children (those magpies) and elderly parents needing care; how Americans care for our elderly people; how white Southerners can reckon with their ancestry; and what it means to grieve and remember people through the things they have left behind.” Belle Boggs, author of The Art of Waiting

“A profound and engaging meditation on personal possessions . . .” Suzanne Van Atten, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“In beautiful writing that doesn’t hide from hard truths, Smith brings us a clear-eyed view of her family, herself, and the Southern culture that shaped them all.” Mary Lambeth Moore, Our State Magazine

“Smith is a sensitive and nuanced storyteller, so that the very intimate curiosities of her family’s life become a bridge for understanding grief more generally. . . . Her careful treatment of things inherited—both tangible and internal—is a sympathetic ode to the vibrant stories that live on, even when the people who lived in them have gone.” Michelle Anne Schingler, Foreword Reviews

Recommended for anyone who has lost a parent, for lovers and wranglers of ephemera, for amateur epistemologists, and for incorrigible musers. Kelly K. Ferguson, Indyweek

The Sum of Trifles, is an examination of profound loss, first the loss of beloved parents, then the loss of the world they created, and then, by extension, the loss of the myths that world embraced. But this is neither a lament nor a tragedy: it is, rather, a revelation arrived at by a stubborn intellect who has the grace, wit, and good sense to know what’s right and how much better the world could, and should, be.” Ron Tanner, West Branch

“Eloquent and thought-provoking . . . ” Molly Sentell Haile, NC Literary Review

Noticed by

The Globe and Mail

Southern Review of Books



Cover design: Kaelin Chappell Broaddus

Cover image: Elizabeth Alexander, Holly II from Heirlooms, photograph by Daniel Mathieu