I had been meaning to read The Danish Girl since I heard about the movie coming out. And then it languished on my list while I read whole piles of other books. But then the trailer for the movie came out and I was so moved by it that when I was next in the bookstore, I picked up a copy.
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff is loosely based on the story of Lili Elbe, believed to be the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In the book, Lili is born as Einar Wegenar a Danish painter who grew up in a bog up north. His Danish landscape paintings sell well and he is a professor of art, which is how he meets his California born wife, Greta. Her family has money but she doesn’t want to lead the life that is expected of her. In Einar she sees something special, something fragile, something that will make her life different.
It is Greta who first encourages Einar to dress as a woman. She needs help finishing a painting of a dancer and asks if Einar will wear the stockings and the shoes, if he will just hold the dress up. And in that moment, something shifts in Einar and he becomes Lili.
The Danish Girl is the story of Einar’s transformation into Lili but it’s also Greta’s story. It is Greta who convinces Lili to go out as herself, who asks that Lili come to visit for afternoons at first and then whole months at a time, she’s the one who looks for specialists to help Lili stay for good.
This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, not just because of the subject matter. When I was looking over the reader’s guide at the end, one of the questions was “Who is the novel’s hero, Einar, Lili or Greta?” That question stayed with me as I finished reading the book and I have to say that, as much as this book is about the extraordinary Lili, I think that the hero of the book is Greta. Greta recognized Lili before Lili ever existed, she’s the one who understood that Lili wasn’t an illness, that she wasn’t dangerous, that she needed to exist. Greta was willing to sacrifice her marriage, to say goodbye to a husband she loved, for the good of Lili.
It is an incredible portrait of an extraordinary marriage as well as being an amazing story. Einar went to innumerable doctors who all wanted to either commit him or give him a lobotomy.
The Danish Girl is a moving, heartbreaking, incredibly inspiring story. It should probably be required reading.