The Danish Girl is based on the real-life story of the first ever gender reassignment surgery and the man who undewent said transformation, Einer Wegener, a Danish painter who had the operation in the 1930’s. When Einer realizes that he is a woman trapped inside a man’s body, he is happily married to a wonderful woman named Greta, who accepts his alter-ego, Lili, as her husband’s truth. The Danish Girl is the story of Einar and Greta, in the years up until and then shortly after his physical transformation into the woman he had always been inside.
I loved this book. LOVED IT. I am not sure that I can coherently explain my feelings on it, but allow me to try.
First of all, the subject is fascinating. Reading about how Einar discovered his authentic self, and the slow way he began to understand that in order to be happy, he needed to become a woman in both body and spirit, was just so interesting. I know that the book is only loosely based on Einar’s story, and Ebershoff certainly had no way of knowing what Einar was thinking and feeling during this time in his life, but I have to believe that Ebershoff captured Einar’s experience pretty accurately. Ebershoff’s portrayal of Einar was just so honest, I couldn’t help but be drawn into him and his story, and so much about it broke my heart. He was becoming physically ill, even to the point of almost starving, because of his internal anguish at his unresolved gender state. It just made me feel so much, sadness, sympathy, understanding, everything. How Ebershoff managed to do that with a relatively unknown person in history simply astounds me.
Although Einar is technically the focus of this story, for me, the book was so much more about Greta than it was about Einar. Greta showed Einar the kind of deep, all-encompassing, ever-forgiving, perfect love that most of us hope to one day experience. She would have done anything, absolutely anything, to make him happy, to make his life better, to sustain the comfort and security that the two of them had together. I loved getting inside Greta’s head and learning how she was dealing with all these changes in her husband’s life – she never really knew exactly how to react to what was going on, or the appropriate things to say or do, but no matter what, she was committed to sticking by her husband and supporting him through it all. And she absolutely did that, even when just about every woman in the world would have abandoned Einar (especially in 1930).
I also want to say that Ebershoff impressed me so much with this novel. His ability to understand his characters, to make the audience empathize with them, is fantastic. He handled an extremely touchy subject with depth, compassion, and true grace. He brought Einar Wegener and Greta Waud to life, he made me believe in them, in the love they shared, and he made me fall in love with both of them. The Danish Girl is beyond stunning – in fact, I can’t think of a proper word for it. I loved it to pieces, and I do hope you will read it soon.