The Painful Process of Adulthood: On Melissa Grunow’s ‘I Don’t Belong Here’

Grunow tackles tough times with tenderness, honesty, and a vulnerability that is disarming and difficult to come by.


Melissa Grunow
Essays | 268 Pages | Reviewed: PDF ARC
978–0–9976038–9–7 | First Edition | $24.00
New Meridian Arts Literary Press | BUY HERE

Image: New Meridian Arts Literary Press.

In her debut essay collection, Grunow gives readers personal accounts full of tough times and tenderness, served on plates of frank honesty. Her writing tackles a range of subjects: graduate school, marriage, divorce (times two), home ownership, teaching, mental illness. But almost every essay contains some form of the often painful process of maturing into adulthood. Grunow’s prose lays bare how life is a fairly messy process, and you absolutely do not get to skip any steps.

Grunow is proficient at dropping loaded sentences within a larger narrative. While reading a tightly constructed essay, you’ll get walloped with a line that takes you a minute to digest, causes you to reflect, to pause for meaning. In “Marked,” she details her multiple tattoos and the journeys that led to them. Within the piece, she also questions how we judge people with tattoos while still complimenting the artwork itself, and how, for many, our identities are strongly linked to our physical appearances. Grunow chooses to cover the majority of her body art, but considers the alternative:

“I keep hidden, but I often wonder, are people more or less likely to listen to me if I give them something to look at?”

My favorite essay of the collection is “Fire and Water,” where Grunow weaves comparisons of a house fire or your home flooding against the tendency for men to seek closure while women repair and move on with or without it.

“We not only rip out the water damage before black mold can grow, we safeguard our houses against the next inevitable flood. We clean, construct, install, discard, rebuild, move forward. We eventually perceive two feet of water in our basements as an opportunity to start anew, rather than seeking the presumed closure that comes with a fire.”

Grunow isn’t afraid to play with form and presents a few of the essays unconventionally, which I found intriguing and felt it worked well with their subject matter. In “ Lady: A Rumination” she presents the various definitions of the term lady interspersed with her examinations on the meaning of names, how she was bestowed her own, and identities around gender roles.

Another favorite from the collection was “Dwelling Place” in which Grunow details her numerous moves and the men who did, or didn’t, accompany them. Eventually, she settles on buying a home and, with that, experiences the joy of never dealing with shared walls, but also the nightmare of unexpected home repairs. She weathers them all, but at a cost.

“Sometimes I had to call on professionals or seek out knowledgeable friends for guidance, but it was never so daunting that I abandoned what was mine. In the end, though, it was more than a house — it was my permanent home — and when something broke I came to accept that there was nobody there to fix but me.”

Mentioning favorites feels a betrayal, though. All these essays have compelling elements. Grunow writes with a vulnerability that is disarming and difficult to come by in creative nonfiction. Nothing she details comes across as exaggerated. The prose itself is well-structured and clearly curated while the personal anecdotes never drag on. Every sentence serves a purpose. After finishing the collection, I was sad it was over, but glad I got to partake.

CETORIA TOMBERLIN is a writer in Northwest Georgia who received her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Berry College. Her work has previously appeared in Fairy Tale Review, NonBinary Review, Southern Women’s Review, and Spires, and she is a book reviewer for Mixed Diversity Reads. Find her at her website.