Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

I am a dreamer. No, not the kind that fantasizes about becoming rich and famous or finally attaining my dream job (although if that one librarian at the U. S. Geological Survey library would give up her job, I would be most pleased). I dream, frequently and vividly (and sometimes lucidly), almost every night. I also remember most of my dreams. I can still clearly recall my worst nightmare, which occurred 14 years ago after watching The Ninth Gate. One of my oddest dreams involved spending the entire night trapped in the ocean, treading water, off the coast of Jamaica. I even occasionally dream about blogging and book reviewing, which can be disconcerting.

So it may come as no surprise that I approach Sigmund Freud with trepidation and mild disdain. Between his Oedipus Complex and the sexual interpretation of dreams (which he later claimed he wasn’t an advocate of), I’m wary of his research, though I do recognize his substantial contribution to twentieth century thought. ‘Freud’s Mistress’ by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman does little to improve one’s opinion of the great Sigmund Freud. The book portrays him as a distant, fickle man obsessed with his research who rationalizes his infidelity with feeble excuses and his own theories on necessary sexuality.

Freud's Mistress
Minna Bernays is a bright, witty woman approaching the age at which she will be considered a spinster. She has been the companion and governess to numerous wealthy women and children after losing her father to a heart attack and her fiancé to tuberculosis. Too bright and headstrong to make any headway, she is dismissed from yet another position – leaving her no choice but to contact her sister. Martha, mother of six small children and wife to the distant, brilliant Freud, happily accepts Minna’s presence in her life. She can use her as a caretaker and a governess without having to pay her. Freud less willingly accepts her, at first. Minna is as different from Martha as two sisters could be. Martha is an empty-headed, opium obsessed housewife repulsed by Freud’s theories, though not a bad person. Minna is an intelligent bibliophile fascinated by Freud and happily engages in discussions on philosophy, sexuality, and marriage. It is not long before the two become infatuated with each other, unable to resist the temptation of falling into an affair.

Based on a mix of historical fact and speculation, Mack and Kaufman have beautifully recreated the world Freud inhabited. The novel’s strength lies in its evocative description of nineteenth century Vienna, as the characters are less than appealing. Freud is as egotistical and argumentative as you might imagine, Martha is an opiate addict who cannot handle her children, and Minna is continually fraught with guilt about her actions, yet unable to help herself. The novel is, however, a fascinating (if partly fictional) look into the personal world of a man who changed the face of modern psychology.

According to Katie Couric, ‘Freud’s Mistress’* will appeal to fans of ‘Loving Frank’ and ‘The Paris Wife’ – I’ve not read either book. If you loved those two titles, you may want to pick this novel up, assuming you trust Ms. Couric. This novel may also appeal to fans of Freud. As I fall into neither of category, I’m not the ideal audience. This does not mean I did not enjoy it, I did. The Vienna scenes depicted by Mack and Kaufman are stunning, as is capturing the role women were relegated to in society (particularly the role of an intelligent, unmarried woman). However, as I previously had little love for the father of psychoanalysis, I have even less now. I do need to remember that this depiction is fictional and that he may not have been quite so bad. Overall, the writing’s good, if dramatic (though I suppose illicit affairs probably are dramatic) and the story is intriguing and readable. I suspect fans of historical fiction will find this novel satisfying. 3.5/5.

I’m may be a dreamer, but I am not the only one*. Anyone else dream frequently and remember it? Or worry that any time you dream about an empty box, you are, in fact, thinking about your uterus?

beef stew

In the novel, Freud (he’s rarely referred to by his first name) will not eat chicken, only beef. There are a variety of stews and such, so I recommending Beef Stew with autumn vegetables. It looks good, but I cannot personally attest to this recipe.

*I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion. It releases July 9, 2013 in the US.
*Borrowed from Imagine


14 thoughts on “Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

  1. Wow, this book sounds incredible! I must admit I haven’t delved too deeply into Freuds theories, nor have I read those other two books, but nevertheless this sounds sufficiently decadent, mysterious and charming for my tastes. Ill have to get my hands on a copy soon!


    1. It’s definitely a good historical drama, a bit heavy on the angst for my tastes, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I did love the period and geographic details, I’ve never been to Vienna, but would love to go now.

      Freud was brilliant, but not someone I would’ve wanted to know.


    1. I couldn’t tell at all, which was lovely. They’ve written a few together before, which may have contributed to the easy flow of the writing. By all accounts, the novel appears to have been thoroughly researched, which I appreciate. I would’ve had serious problems if they tried to make Freud sympathetic.

      I should read Loving Frank at some point, most people I know (that have read it) loved it…


      1. Do you know much about Wright’s life? If you do, much of Loving Frank won’t come as a surprise (nevertheless, it is still beautifully written and well worth reading). If you don’t know much, avoid any research – the ending is like a punch in the guts.


      2. I do know what happens to Mamah and her children, so I’d be prepared, it’s just horrible to think about. Wright is one of my favorite architects, so I do owe the book a read at some point, but that ending is going to hurt.


  2. This sounds very, very interesting. I have read Loving Frank and The Paris Wife (liked them both) and I totally trust Katie. And you! 🙂


    1. It’s good historical fiction, I found it fun because I was actually familiar with some of the people. I want to read Loving Frank, but as I know how that will end, I am somewhat hesitant…


  3. My dreams are very vivid (and mostly of the nightmare/terror quality, unfortunately), and I remember them very well. Also, I tend to dream in color and I hear that’s rare? I don’t know. I can remember everything about my dreams for a long, long time. Like you, I can remember some dreams I had years ago.


    1. Many of mine tend to be threatening and/or melancholy in nature, the latter which is fairly reflective of my personality, so it fits (which could mean Freud was onto something about dreams representing something we’re hiding/repressing during the daytime, though I’d be loath to admit it). My dreams rarely fade and are usually in color as well. I don’t know if it’s rare, but most people I know rarely remember their dreams at all, let alone black and white vs. color, so I wouldn’t doubt it.

      Dreaming it supposed to mean you’re getting better, more restful sleep, but I find excessive dreaming (or the memory of it) to be draining.


  4. I’m a teacher, so I’m constantly dreaming about school. Sometimes I dream about grading papers, which is very depressing. My worst ones though are dreams about not going to class on the first day. I had one of those the other day, and I had to remind myself it was July when I woke up, and I wouldn’t have students again until August.


    1. I don’t think there’s anything worse than dreaming about work…just to get up and have to go to work. Happens to me frequently…


  5. I often remember my dreams – and I dream in color. Last night’s was fun; I was hanging with a friend and a friend of her’s that I have not met but know of. We were either shopping or going through Closets? At one point we had a metal detector and found a bunch of coins.
    This book sounds good. I DNF’d the Paris Wife. But I think I might enjoy Loving Frank.


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