Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman
Author: Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Austria / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Freud / Infidelity / Sisters / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amy Einhorn Books (7/9/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked and disliked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The early sexual relationship between Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I really ought to like it -- it's different, and it could be a scene from the book -- but I'm actually not wild about it! Fickle is me!
I'm reminded of...: Sarah Jio
First line: The season for suicides had begun.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like historical fiction of affairs.
Why did I get this book?: Very curious about late 19th century Austria.
Review: I'm all over the place with this book: I liked some aspects of it and disliked others and I really don't know where to settle in the end.
Opening in 1895, the novel follows Minna Bernays, sister to Sigmund Freud's wife Martha. Minna is pretty, clever, and unwilling to settle into marriage for convenience or comfort. As a result, she's relegated to life as a domestic for upper class Austrian families, a job she routinely loses. Minna would prefer to drink gin and smoke cigarettes in her bedroom, reading her time away, and engage in sharp conversation on arts and science, but when jobless, penniless, and homeless, she goes to her sister Martha.
Martha, once the family beauty, is now a mother of six wild children, wife to brilliant but controversial Sigmund Freud. Exhausted, addicted to opiates, Martha no longer entrances Sigi, as he's nicknamed, and Minna immediately fascinates. Minna is as enraptured, and eventually the two become lovers.
Historically, we know Minna lives with the Freuds for over forty years, and recently it's been discovered that Minna and Sigmund checked into a hotel together as a married couple. Much of Mack's and Kaufman's novel, however, is conjecture, and the resulting book was, for me, frustrating.
I'm not always wild about biographical historical fiction, especially when the figure is question is 'famous' for being the sexual partner of someone more famous. The reasons for entering into an illicit sexual relationship can be fascinating material for a novel, however, and I was very curious about how Mack and Kaufman would articulate Minna's and Martha's relationship. (That to me was far more interesting to me than just how hot Minna found Sigi to be!)
Sadly, the predominant arc of this novel is on the first few liaisons between Minna and Sigmund with a six page Afterward that only lightly touches upon Martha's cognizance of the affair. The first third of the novel leads up to the sex, and the rest details their liaisons, Minna's alternating guilt and happiness, and instances of Sigmund being a total jerk. I was disappointed the relationship with Minna and Martha wasn't explored more; there's a brief hint offered that Martha not only knew, but understood and even expected Freud's lovers to take up certain tasks to keep him happy (and out of her hair).
The writing style is fine; despite the poetic and dramatic opening line -- The season for suicides had begun. -- the narrative is straight-forward and reads fast. Scenes where a demonstration of intelligence or wit were needed were summed up with a single sentence ("...Minna said, going on to discuss the disastrous ramifications of imperial support of Lueger, especially for the Jews.", p72) which felt a bit like a cop out. The narrative is peppered with historical tidbits that were fascinating -- the easy use of opiates and coca (cocaine) was amazing/horrifying -- and there's a sense of what the woman's sphere was like, from clothes to household details.
So, I can't easily say if I liked or disliked this one. I don't mind unlikable or irredeemable characters, but neither Minna nor Sigmund were truly ugly, awful, or horrible enough to be fun. They're merely selfish. I can't condemn the novel for not following a plot line I would have preferred, however. I think fans of 'popular'/women's historical fiction will like this one -- it reminded me of Sarah Jio and Christina Baker Kline (without the contemporary parallel story line) and contemporary writers like Patti Callahan Henry.
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