It is 1946, seven years after the death of Sigmund Freud. American journalist Mary Huntington Smith contacts Freud’s wife, Martha, with a proposition to write her biography. Mrs. Freud declines, but the two strike up a friendship, and Martha agrees to write to Mary “off the record.” What follows is a wonderful epistolary novel, an insightful, complex portrait of a woman who is generally a background figure in Sigmund Freud’s life. In Nicolle Rosen’s novel, the tables are turned, and Martha comes to the fore, while the reader catches fascinating glimpses of Sigmund, daughter Anna, Carl Jung and other famous figures in the world of psychoanalysis. Martha’s letters to Mary alternate with chapters in which Martha privately muses on the events in her life, reflecting on many of the events that she cannot write to anyone but herself. Martha reflects on her childhood; Sigmund’s passionate courtship and the early days of their marriage; her sister Minna, who quickly replaces her as Sigmund’s intellectual companion; the many people holding court around Sigmund, including Jung and Ferenczi; Judaism and atheism; Sigmund’s death, and Martha’s life after he is gone.
The novel is filled with a large cast of characters, and the discussions of events in Martha’s life are not chronological, but Rosen manages to include everything without losing or confusing readers, including those who are largely unfamiliar with Freud or other luminaries of psychiatry. Rosen’s research and narrative gifts allow Martha to emerge as a vibrant, captivating companion, without ever making her out to be anything but what she is: a devoted wife, mother, and friend.