Saturday, August 2, 2014

Dreaming for Freud: A Novel by Sheila Kohler

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Novel Review/Netgalley
Read: May 3, 2014

Acclaimed for her spare prose and exceptional psychological insights in her novels Becoming Jane Eyre and Love Child, Sheila Kohler’s latest is inspired by Sigmund Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Dreaming for Freud paints a provocative and sensual portrait of one of history’s most famous patients. In the fall of 1900, Dora’s father forces her to begin treatment with the doctor. Visiting him daily, the seventeen-year-old girl lies on his ottoman and tells him frankly about her strange life, and above all about her father's desires as far as she is concerned. But Dora abruptly ends her treatment after only eleven weeks, just as Freud was convinced he was on the cusp of a major discovery. In Dreaming for Freud, Kohler explores what might have happened between the man who changed the face of psychotherapy and the beautiful young woman who gave him her dreams.

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Ida Bauer, aka Dora, and her brother
I have mixed feelings about Sheila Kohler's Dreaming for Freud. In retrospect, I think the novel's tone and underlying message intensely creative, but I have serious questions regarding its appeal among wider audiences.

First and foremost, I couldn't personally relate to Kohler's narrators. Freud and Dora are cold, self-absorbed and manipulative and while I can appreciate those character flaws, I think I would have enjoyed the story more if Kohler had balanced these blemishes with a couple redeeming qualities.

To make matters worse, I felt myself at a disadvantage with the material, both historic and conceptual. I wasn't familiar with the case study or particularly well-versed in Freud's theories when I first picked up the novel and ultimately spent more time researching the facts than I did with the finished manuscript.

Looking back, I can claim a certain admiration for Kohler's style and thesis, but generally speaking I'd be very hesitant to recommend this particular novel forward.

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Her imaginings have been examined and interpreted again and again. How many people have already taken up her story and filled in the blank spaces, attempt- ing to explicate what happened according to their own imaginative desires? At least her sufferings have served a purpose, and a good one, at that. The professor’s version of their interaction is so different from what she remembers, but does it matter in the end? Who will have the last word? Will anyone guess that the dreams she told him were invented? Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps it makes no difference whether the world knows her version of what happened. Would the stars change? Would they cease to glitter so brightly? Would even her own life, what may be left of it, be any different?
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