Letter of Intent by Ursula Curtiss (1971)
Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Letter of Intent is a difficult book to rate, an interesting book to read and one which describes a world as different from our own as many one finds in science fiction or fantasy. If you are interested in a book about a woman, a book told from the point of view of a woman, a book that celebrates a woman\’s ambition to achieve comfort and status, or a book that relates, without any censoriousness, a woman who values men only for their instrumental utility then you will find this a compelling read.
Unfortunately after the reader follows the protagonist across years, the continent and several classes the ending is abrupt and in the opinion of this reader, unsatisfying.
Warning, past here there be spoilers.
From the time Celia (whose full last name the reader never learns) arrives cold, wet and with a sketchy grasp of English, at the Stevenson’s to begin work as their new maid she begins to reshape herself. Celia telescopes her last name to Brett and leaves behind one employer after another as she works herself up the social ladder. She seldom finds men as useful or interesting as women for it is the women who have the skills she wishes to master (how to organize a dinner party, how to have enough food and liquor without spending unnecessarily, how to dress properly.)
Curtiss makes Celia believable. She has strengths (and weaknesses) that are believable of someone who had come from that particular place in American life. She leaves behind her a trail of broken lives and even deaths and yet she never actively works to harm anyone. She merely acts only and always in her own best interests.
When I first read this book (not long after it was first published in 1971) it stood out because it was a book about a woman who had no interest in men and yet, on the surface, was everything people expected of a woman. She cooked, she cleaned, she sewed, she dusted, she learned how to entertain, she learned how to be an interesting companion to the men she found useful. But she had no more real interest in any man than she had in a good coat. They were enjoyable as long as they fulfilled their function and would be discarded when they no longer did so.
On my most recent rereading of the book I also realized that Celia’s is a story that would have to be told very differently today. Celia is able to escape the home she grew up in, change her name and discard former acquaintances as she moves up through East Coast society and then West Coast society in a way that no one could do now without paying for new paperwork and employing experts to build a new identity. Letter of Intent is written in a world where no one asks for anyone else’s Social Security Card, where most transactions were still in cash, where you could open a bank account with almost no documentation and where by moving to a new town one could establish a new life.
Letter of Intent is also a book that passes the Bechdel test on the first page and never looks back. It is not a book that exudes conscious feminism but it is, in may ways, the most feminist of books. It is a book set in a world of women, that proceeds from the assumption that woman are a likely as smart, silly, slow, weak, strong as men. It is a book that stands back and looks with cold clarity on the ways and means through which women can fulfill their ambitions and until the very last page, it never suggest that a rational person would respond in any other way.