A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960

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