Freud’s Mistress is being compared to The Paris Wife and Loving Frank - so I agreed to review without hesitation, without even reading a plot summary to see who the “mistress” is. In fact, Freud’s mistress was his sister-in-law, Minna – the sister of his wife, Martha.
Reading this, right now you might be going “eww.” You might decide not to pick it up out of moral disgust. But that’s like not picking up a Holocaust book because you can’t bear the truth of what Jews, and others suffered. You can shy away from it, but the fact is, it happened. Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law. Aren’t you luridly fascinated by this bit of information? I was.
It kept me singularly turning the pages until about midway through, when the passivity of the female characters began to gnaw at me. Martha, Freud’s wife, just flits around, blissfully unaware – vapid and innocuous in her demeanor. She does this even as the two miscreants are living with her under the same roof (An unemployed, unmarried Minna comes to live with the Freuds in 1895). Martha is full of cheer and good will. There is no hint that she suspects her sister. Minna, equally passive, never confesses the truth. She is conflicted, but it is a battle that rages on inside, with no outward manifestations or consequences. As a result of this “doesn’t-know-won’t tell” dynamic, the narrative satisfaction one might think is coming – the confrontation between two sisters and/or between a husband and wife over this unforgivable thing – never does.
Ultimately, that is what was missing for me – the dramatic climax, the big reveal, with everything crumbling and spiraling out of control. The authors don’t go there – perhaps because that there is no documented proof that Martha found out – or maybe because they assumed she didn’t (Minna went onto live with the Freuds for 42 years, so I’d say it’s a safe assumption to make). Still, I would’ve like them to imagine she had. Martha’s knowing, but choosing to keep her sister on in spite of it is so emotionally interesting to me. Martha’s not knowing and Minna never telling is not interesting. In fact, it’s the opposite thing. It’s boring.
How can a book centered on something so salacious become boring? When authors choose documentation over imagination.
Still, Mack and Kaufman should be saluted for writing in tandem a book that feels seamless, a book, rich in period detail and Freudian theory – a book that begs the question, why didn’t anyone ever psychoanalyze him?
Many thanks to TLC book tours and Amy Einhorn Books for my advance reader copy!