Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

Title: Freud’s Mistress
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.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Freud’s Mistress to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 9/13.


  1. It can be hard with the books that you don't know if you liked them or didn't. I have read a few of those this year. Jen at Devourer of Books was having mixed feelings on this one as well, I think. But, you have piqued my curiosity.

    1. I don't mind hating a book but 'liking' that feeling (A Man of Parts was like that for me) but in this case, I'm really all over the place. If I'm feeling generous, I can say it was good; but then I can think of a handful of problems. But it seems to be getting good reviews across the board and it is provocative, which is always good. Would love to know what you think of it if you do read -- will have to search for Jen's review. I kind of want to discuss this one!

  2. All over the place, huh? It happens. I'm intrigued to see what I think of this and what my book club will think as we'll be reading it soon. I suspect we'll be all over the place, as well, in our mixed opinions. We generally always are.

    1. I'm never a fan of stories that are primarily about infidelity, but in this case, I found that even that element wasn't totally explored. Jen of Picky Girl commented below about what she didn't like, which is close to my experience, too. Still -- it's getting lots of 3 and 4 star reviews on GoodReads, so I think it's striking the right notes for many readers!

  3. My review for this was supposed to post last week, but it disappeared! Completely. And now when I think back, all I can remember is really disliking this book. I thought the writing was amateurish, and the development felt similar. That annoys me so much.

    1. I've been looking for your review -- that is SO weird that it disappeared! I'd love to have seen your thoughts -- like I told Nicole, in generous moments I'm fine, but then I get nitpicky about what didn't. This one took me forever to read -- I kept putting it down in irritation.

  4. That sounds like a book that would be great for a book club. Discussing it with others could help you flesh out your feelings.

    1. Yes! Especially because I'm unsure if we're supposed to take away that this was a romance/was romantic or if it was supposed to seem as pointless, destructive, and unfulfilling as I saw it!

  5. Selfish characters are hard to take -- somehow bad behavior with others in mind makes a character so much more interesting!

    1. Yes -- or, if they had handled the relationship with the sisters. I felt like they just knocked Martha out on painkillers (sometimes literally!) to avoid having to 'go there', so to speak, with the characters and the story. The two moments where there was a hint of understanding occurred in the last 7 pages of the book and felt too little, too late.

  6. I hate when interesting conversations are just summarized! It's something I noticed recently in The Kill Artist and in Sense and Sensibility and which I didn't like in either.

  7. I had such high hopes for this one, but based on your review, I may just skip it. I have a hard time with characters when their only quality is selfishness. You really want to love them or hate them or be intrigued by then. Hope you'll eventually be able to figure out whether you liked it or disliked it after you put more distance between yourself and the book.

  8. I think I'd feel the same, possibly veering more towards dislike as I don't like the sound of what you rightly call a cop out (from the quotation it seems like the paragraph/dialogue would feel unfinished). A very fair review :)

  9. Interested that you are so across the board with this book ... usually you are more certain about where you stand. I'm quite intrigued now!

    Thanks for being on the tour Audra.

  10. Good afternoon, Audra,

    I must admit, I was interested in this book, first by the title, and secondly, by whom it was focused upon!! I always wondered if the man who claimed to understand everyone else really had it all together himself! It does not surprise me at all that he kept a mistress, and I must say, the reason I am drawn into these biographical fiction stories isn't so much the focus on the affairs (if they have them) but rather on what makes that individual tick! As to say, from a sociological point of view!?

    I appreciate that you are betwixt knowing how you feel about this book, as I have oft had that same issue myself when I had to make a review! There are some books that test the limits of what we can appreciate OR what we can formulate into words afterwards!

    Thank you for offering the bookaway, and for being so honest with what worked and didn't work in the novel! I think from what you said, it could have been fleshed out a bit more to round out the bits that were glossed over!? Hmm,...

  11. This ALMOST sounds like something I would like, but if you're on the fence AND it's about a fictional affair then I'm passing. I also love your point about the main character being someone famous solely for that affair with someone more famous. How depressing.


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