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When I first heard about Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman's new novel, Freud's Mistress, I realized I knew little about Sigmund Freud's personal life. I was aware of only the basics: He was Jewish, lived in Vienna, and escaped to the UK as Hitler rose to power. He was married and had children. But that's it. So the title of the novel caught my attention. Freud, who thought sexual issues were the basis for neuroses, had cheated on his wife? I had to read this book!
Here's the publisher's summary:
It is fin-de-siècle Vienna and Minna Bernays, an overeducated lady’s companion with a sharp, wry wit, is abruptly fired, yet again, from her position. She finds herself out on the street and out of options. In 1895, the city may be aswirl with avant-garde artists and revolutionary ideas, yet a woman’s only hope for security is still marriage. But Minna is unwilling to settle. Out of desperation, she turns to her sister, Martha, for help. Martha has her own problems—six young children and an absent, disinterested husband who happens to be Sigmund Freud. At this time, Freud is a struggling professor, all but shunned by his peers and under attack for his theories, most of which center around sexual impulses. And while Martha is shocked and repulsed by her husband’s “pornographic” work, Minna is fascinated. Minna is everything Martha is not—intellectually curious, engaging, and passionate. She and Freud embark on what is at first simply an intellectual courtship, yet something deeper is brewing beneath the surface, something Minna cannot escape.Mack and Kaufman focus on the first couple of years after Minna moved in with the Freuds, when her relationship with Sigmund changed from companionable to something more. Without forgetting that Freud's work was important to the lives of the principal players, the authors do an excellent job shifting our attention to the less-well-known domestic side of the famous psychoanalyst and his family.
In this sweeping tale of love, loyalty, and betrayal—between a husband and a wife, between sisters—fact and fiction seamlessly blend together, creating a compelling portrait of an unforgettable woman and her struggle to reconcile her love for her sister with her obsessive desire for her sister’s husband, the mythic father of psychoanalysis.
Although Freud may have been brilliant, he wasn't a particularly attentive husband, father, or lover. His research and practice were all-consuming, and if you couldn't discuss his theories, you were likely going to be dismissed as not worth his time. Minna was not only pretty but intellectually starved, and she loved talking about a variety of issues with her brother-in-law. They were in many ways a perfect match, but their relationship did not come without pain.
Freud's Mistress paints Martha, Freud's wife, in a fairly unflattering light and it's no wonder that Sigmund was attracted to the more easygoing Minna. I found it interesting that the Freud children seemed to have a number of developmental and behavioral problems, yet neither of their parents bothered to take an active part in their upbringing. It was Minna who soothed their nightmares and negotiated their arguments.
Readers who are interested in historical issues won't be disappointed. The story touches on anti-Semitism, women's repression, scientific theories for mental illness, and class differences in Vienna. At the same time, the scope of the novel is quite narrow, and Hack and Kaufman do not transport us to the Austria of a hundred years ago. Instead we are invited into Freud's apartment and office, where we are given a glimpse of the private side of the man behind the Oedipus complex.
From the first chapter of Freud's Mistress, you'll be taken in by Minna's story. Is she to be pitied? Or was she content with her choices? You'll also wonder about Martha. Did she know about her husband and sister? And more important, did she care?
No need to take your place on the couch, unless it's with a glass of wine in hand and a sachertorte on the plate. In that case, you and your book club will be debating this triangular relationship, as well as the questions in the Reading Guide, long into the night.
To learn more about Karen Hack and Jennifer Kaufman, visit the Freud's Mistress website, where you can see photographs of Sigmund, Martha, and Minna and read an excerpt from the book.
Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.
Published by Putnam / Amy Einhorn Books, July 2013
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