At first glance, Julia Pandl’s debut, MEMOIR OF THE SUNDAY BRUNCH, appears to be just another foodie work of nonfiction. But then it charms you with humor and devastates you with honesty and insight.
The book begins when Julia is 12 and working her first official shift at her family’s popular restaurant in Bayside, Wisconsin. The youngest of nine children in a devout Roman Catholic family, she is --- despite her siblings’ prior experience --- unprepared for what awaits her. Her father George, usually bookish and gentle, becomes a man possessed in the rush of the brunch service. Order and a culinary perfection not attained at home were his standards, enforced with menacing tongs. The family restaurant was one of the poles of the Pandls’ lives, and it's the space and constant to which Julia returns again and again in telling her story. The church is the other pole that they gravitated toward (and often wrestled with). Sibling rivalries, new houses, Sunday masses, driving lessons and family vacations are recalled with a keen intelligence and wit. The Pandl family is at once eccentric and totally normal; Julia illustrates both aspects well, painting an endearing portrait of the people she loves most in the world.
"MEMOIR OF THE SUNDAY BRUNCH is charming and entertaining, yet surprisingly deep. It is a unique take on family and responsibility, one that will have you laughing out loud and weeping. As an exploration of religion and faith, obligation and compassion, it hits the mark without hitting you over the head."
However, the memoir shifts gears, and the book turns into something different in Part II; it becomes stronger, more compelling and emotionally vulnerable. It’s not that the humor or the scathing assessments of her relatives is completely gone. But in the second half, Julia is dealing with her parents aging, falling ill and dying. A couple of chapters abruptly leave traditional narrative behind in favor of a more poetic style:
“My mother cried forty-three-year-old tears when she found out she was pregnant with me.
She was in labor for four days.
My mother peed in a pot last night.
She left a half banana on the counter.
My mother told me she’d watch over me from up above.
Then I brushed her hair.”
The change in style is both jarring and welcome. Julia beautifully captures the heartbreak of losing her parents without being maudlin or clichéd. She finds bittersweet playfulness in the bleakest of moments and writes her parents a tender portrayal and tribute. She honors her siblings as well. She wisely writes, “Impending death, just so you know, does not have the ability to kick history to the curb. It can’t. And do you want to know why? Because the child in us, not the adult, sits down at the bedside and holds the hand. Sure, we are taller, fatter, grayer-haired, and slightly more mature versions of ourselves, but we are still the same kids who had doled out nicknames like Fatty, Witchy, Chubby, Lusky, Loser and Little Lotta. We were individuals and we were who we were, but by some miracle we all landed on the same page where George was concerned. We all understood, I think, that our future held no parents, so we let the past stay where it belonged.”
MEMOIR OF THE SUNDAY BRUNCH is charming and entertaining, yet surprisingly deep. It is a unique take on family and responsibility, one that will have you laughing out loud and weeping. As an exploration of religion and faith, obligation and compassion, it hits the mark without hitting you over the head. It is as warm and complex, strange and inviting, as the Sunday brunch George Pandl served up for all those years.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on November 21, 2012