The Danish Girl
by David Ebershoff
Inspired by a true story, The Danish Girl is a tale of a passionate and unusual marriage. Dressing as a woman in order that his wife might finish a painting, Einer Wegener realises that he might in part be a woman. He eventually becomes Lili Elbe, and his wife’s muse.
I didn’t really think this was going to be my type of book but gave it a go anyway after picking it up in a swap. Mostly fiction with hints of fact, I’ve surprisingly found that that the story of Lili Elbe, “The Danish Girl”, was far more interesting and engaging than I had imagined it would be.
This book tells the story of Einar and Greta Wegener, a married couple living in Copenhagen in the 1920s, and when we first meet these characters, Greta asks her husband to put on women’s clothes so that she can finish a painting. The book then continues on Einar’s journey and transformation into the woman he feels he has trapped inside. They name her Lili. A groundbreaking story at the time, things have certainly changed a lot since the 1920s and I think this is a story still worth telling.
I don’t have any experience with this topic myself but one thing I was certainly surprised by was the way that most of the characters supported Lili almost unconditionally, especially given that this happened during a time when transgender people weren’t really considered to exist. This view was shown through the views of some medical doctors that they visited who suggested Einar should be sectioned, but I would also have expected something similar from friends and relatives. On reflection of this, I wonder whether despite occurring at the time, this wasn’t really necessary for the story Ebershoff was trying to tell; one without hostility and reluctance but more about beauty, acceptance and love.
Overall Ebershoff tells this story delicately but in detail. He truly evokes the atmosphere of the locations the couple move around to. Paris, Copenhagen and Dresden in the 20s and 30s are well painted, as are the unique personalities of the characters. Each feels realistic and honest and I found myself easily picturing the characters while I read. While I haven’t yet seen the film adaptation of this book, I know of it and couldn’t help but picture leading actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. I know that it’s highly rated so following the book I’ll definitely be adding the film to my watch list.
Despite all of this positivity and praise, there was something I didn’t like that I can’t quite pin down. I found that I couldn’t help but get distracted during some of Ebershoff’s lengthy descriptions and scene setting. There were a few points where the story went off on a side plot and somehow I got lost. I skimmed a few sentences because the paragraph didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I did like this book, I just didn’t love it!
Overall rating: This is a fascinating and heartwarming story about the meaning of unconditional love and self-acceptance. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy “The Danish Girl” enough to award it more than three stars but am still glad that I read it. Perhaps I’ll enjoy the film a little more.