Review: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

 It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

Over the last few years, the film industry has become an almost inexhaustible source of reading inspiration. I have first looked up the story of Lili Elbe, while reading the rave articles about the stunning transformation of Eddie Redmayne, who started filming The Danish Girl shortly after scooping all possible awards for the role of Stewen Hawking.

David Ebershoff’s novel tells the story of Danish painter Einar Weneger and his American wife Greta, also a painter. Weneger became the first recipient of gender reassignment surgery after standing in as one of his wife’s models and gradually discovering his true feminine identity as Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe became a transgender pioneer, the story of her marriage is as unconventional and provocative as one may be. But the fact is, David Ebershoff’s novel bears only a slight resemblance to the truth, and had I know the extent of historical inaccuracies I would most likely have avoided reading it altogether.

Literature, and art in general, should allow space for artistic interpretation. However, when it comes to remarkable people who’ve lived remarkable lives, overt disregard to historical fact, especially when it comes to all but one character of the novel, is a sacrilege. In his acknowledgments, the author of The Danish Girl does state that the novel is only loosely based on Weneger’s /Elbe’s life, all other characters save for Einar/Lili have found no reflection in reality.

This questionable literary choice becomes even more prominent when

A portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Weneger

you think about the love story that plays as foundation of the novel. At first Einar’s wife has been extremely supportive of his desire to dress as Lili. The shy young woman became the favorite model of Einar’s wife and the paintings depicting Lili Elbe brought her fortune and fame… But the fact is Greta from the Danish Girl did not even exist and the historical inaccuracies, once I found out about them , completely revised my idea of the whole story. Greta from the novel is an American, her whole character and backstory is built around her American roots, while real Gerda Weneger was a Dane. I would have forgiven a change of nationality, had the historical changes ended on that… By the time Einar travels to Germany, they’re already separated and she is married to another man. David Ebershoff gave Einar’s wife a semblance of a happy ending, one that Gerda did not receive in real life.

While it does some semblance of justice to Lili’s internal world, the secondary character development is very lacking. Greta/Gerda supported Einar thought the years and deserved a far better literary treatment. The Danish Girl storyline is a times so overburdened by details and descriptions that you’d want to skim through it.

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe

The narrative focuses on Greta, Einar and Lili and skips between years, thoughts and descriptions of surrounding quite haphazardly. Ultimately falls flat, despite the remarkable story that could have served as a foundation of a literary masterpiece.David Ebershoff provides an interesting take on a extraordinary story, however, The Danish Girl can hardly be named an outstanding first novel.

Overall: 3*

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