My rating: 2 of 5 stars
On a cool afternoon at the Widow House, Greta Wegener asks her husband Einar for a small favour. Her friend Anna who sits for her paintings has cancelled again, and Greta prods Einar to try on a dress and sit in Anna’s place instead. This simple request from his wife stirs Einar to the core where he discovers, deep inside his soul, a second individual sharing his body for 35 years, Lili. Thus, begins the transformation of Einar, a man, a husband, a painter, to Lili, a woman who wants to live, a woman who wants to love and the journey of the couple, Einar and Greta to find themselves and each other.
David Ebershoff‘s debut launched in 2000 with a novel loosely inspired by true events, reimagining the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first transwomen to undergo gender affirmation surgery, The Danish Girl. In his novel, Ebershoff attempts to approach the space between the marriage of Einar and Greta and to explore the transition they both experienced under the light of Lili’s appearance in their lives. Fifteen years after the release of his debut, Ebershoff saw his novel turned into a movie that eventually received an Academy Award for the role of Gerda – in the novel Greta – played by Alicia Vikander.
Transgender rights and equality today are certainly much more discussed and accepted than they did back in the 1920’s. Multiple transgender people undergo gender affirmation surgery daily and many are able to live a life they are happy with and feel accepted by their family and peers. Certainly the quality of life and health care of the trans population are much more advanced. So, I was incredibly intrigued when a movie came out about the life of a transwoman in 1925 and much more fascinated to know that the movie is based on a novel inspired by true life accounts. I have always wondered how the gender affirmation surgeries began and how the first people to undergo such an unprecedented transformation, back in a time where being different was utterly condemned by society, feel and think about themselves, their community and their world. The premise of David Ebershoff was, to say the least, captivating. I simply had to read his novel to then allow myself to watch lovely Eddie Redmayne and his performance on the big screen.
Einar felt lonely, and he wondered if anybody in the world would ever know him.
Unfortunately, my sense of the novel was that David Ebershoff bit off way more than he could chew. The too abrupt beginning of Einar trying on women’s clothing for the first time and instantly experiencing the presence of Lili inside him was fortunately overshadowed by my initial fascination of the story to come. Looking back now though, I see that Ebershoff’s poor writing skills reflect from the first sentence and continue throughout the book. One day, the first afternoon as Ebershoff names it, Einar feels Lili’s existence. With his wife’s encouragement, Lili keeps visiting them occasionally after that first afternoon appearance and Einar starts fading away. When Lili is there Einar is gone and when Einar is there Lili is not. And so is Ebershoff’s grip on the story.
The author portrays Einar’s experience of Lili as a separate self, an entity of her own. While the experience of transgender people today is much different from Einar and Lili’s, one has to keep in mind that the novel is set a rough 90 years ago, propounding the manifestation of Einar and Lili’s personalities as two separate, different ones. Through the use of two personalities that cannot coexist, Ebershoff attempts to bring Lili to the surface and slowly allow Einar to be buried to non-existence. Despite the claims of the cover that this is a love story at its core, Ebershoff completely fails to communicate the essence of this novel. Greta rather blindly accepts Einar’s second identity and her journey to acceptance is a short affair in which she is passively waiting for Lili’s domination to move on with her (Greta’s) life and find love anew. Einar himself is not given much of a voice to the point that one could say the novel is really not about him. He experiences some gender dysphoria that is mainly demonstrated through his rapidly declining physical health but his transition is not otherwise explored much. Sometimes he is Einar, a lost, severely depressed and sick-looking man, and other times she is Lili, a frail woman looking for love and to live her life independently. Where is the magnificent, powerful love story promised everywhere?
And wasn’t that the inexhaustible struggle for Greta? Her perpetual need to be alone but always loved, and in love.
David Ebershoff focuses mainly on the social aspects of Lili and Greta’s lives. The people they come in contact with, their past lives and their future awaiting Lili’s transition. Greta comes out as a supportive and strong woman who is present for Lili and Einar and supports them both through their extraordinary journey. Along with Greta, a small cast of side characters are witnessing Einar’s decline and, in differing levels, offer their support and encouragement. However wonderful it is to have a supportive social circle, it is difficult for me to accept that Lili and Einar where so easily welcomed and embraced by so many people and that Lili was also on multiple occasions flirted with…in 1929! If this is true, that Lili Elbe was indeed accepted without ridicule and bullying from society, then I blame Ebershoff for providing such a poor description of Lili’s perception of her surroundings and her expectations regarding her appearance on society. I cannot understand how Lili made public appearances in that day and era without any consequences, psychological or societal. Ebershoff simply does not even go there, does not explore this part of Lili’s life and it’s one of the many missing pieces of this ill-executed novel.
Yes, but if I were to look down there what would I see?”
“Don’t think about it like that,” Greta said. “That’s not the only thing that makes you Lili.
Writing historical fiction in the 21st century gives you the freedom to be daring and to explore the past in the more accepting light of today. Following Lili’s transition, I expected to be given an account of her experience as a male to female transgender person in the years between the two World Wars. What an amazing era to tell a transition story of! Ebershoff briefly narrates Einar’s visits to physicians and barely touches on the authority doctors posed back then – and still do today. But when the actual surgery begins, we just watch Lili for pages and pages sitting on a bed or on a chair and looking outside and thinking of Greta and the bog and other people in her life. Lili is presented as a passive observer of her body’s transition for the purposes of telling a story about transitioning. She undergoes surgery which only her doctor understands and all the reader sees is Lili’s confusion and fear of what the future holds. Why would someone write such a pointless reimagining of a real person’s life?
What I am trying to say is that this novel is neither a love story nor a transition story in historical times. Lily’s character is very ill-conceived and Einar’s character is endangered to non-existence, not because of Lili’s emergence, but because of Ebershoff’s underdeveloped writing skills. The Danish Girl is a novel with so much potential gone wasted that, after reading it, you end up in pain like Lili in bed after her surgeries. I am hoping and expecting the movie to compensate and bring out much of what Ebershoff somehow unjustly buried. I give 2 stars for the wonderful idea and the poor execution.
I’m a BookDepository affiliate. If you want to buy a book online (free worldwide shipping) and you go through my links (below) I’ll get a small referral commission. Thank you very much for your support!
BookDepository: The Danish Girl
Find me on social media: