Beginning in Copenhagen in 1925, The Danish Girl is about the marriage of Einar and Greta Wegener. Both artists, one day Greta asks Einar to do her a favour and sit for a portrait of a mutual female friend Anna – wearing her clothes. The experience sparks something in Einar, and propels the couple down a path they never anticipated. “Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.”
And so a third character enters the novel – Lili; Einar’s alter ego and female self. To begin with, Lili only appears occasionally – “she came and went, and there was nothing more to concern her than the wind lifting her hem” – but as time goes on, she becomes a more permanent member of their household and the lines between Einar and Lili become blurred. By the end of the novel, Einar has gone further on his transformation to become Lili than ever seemed plausible in those opening pages.
There’s something very beautiful about The Danish Girl. It’s a story about artists and it’s artistic in its prose – Ebershoff truly paints picture of their lives in Copenhagen, Paris and even America with vivid imagery and rich descriptions which really bring the story to life.
However, it does seem at times like we can barely get through a scene without the author painstakingly describing the colour of the walls, the material of the floor and what the irrelevant characters in the background are wearing and doing. And sometimes this scene-building is great – I felt like I was right there, living it with the characters – but at other times, it was tedious to the point where a barrage of adjectives and similes would detract from the main story.
At its heart The Danish girl takes a look at relationships, and the complexities of human nature. Einar/Lili is a unique character, who almost feels split in two at times, and I loved how the writer the writer explored what could have been going on her mind and the effect it had on Greta.
I read quite a lot, and often favour genres for escapism – gripping thrillers or other-worldly dystopian – but really, there’s little things more vast or complex than human nature, and Ebershoff does offer a unique exploration of that.
The book Vs. Film Vs. True Story [Possible spoilers]
The Danish Girl is loosely based on the real-life story of Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe, but both the movie and the novel are works of fiction. The book only spans around six years and the film timeline is unspecified from what I can remember, whereas the transformation really took over ten years.
There’s huge artistic liberties taken in the book – Einar’s wife being Greta rather than Gerda, and coming from America rather than Denmark, has to be one of the largest. But one thing the book recognised which the film did not was that there’s a good chance Lili was actually intersex all along – rudimentary ovaries were reportedly discovered in her during one of her numerous operations. Perhaps the film-makers just didn’t feel it was very important in this story of identity, love and art.
The book explores Einar/Lili’s journey thoroughly and vividly, but it does feel a little slow at times. The film, on the other hand, packs the story neatly into two hours, managing to capture the full spectrum of the main characters’ emotions without feeling rushed or it ever feeling anything is missing. For those who are curious about the story, but unsure whether they want to commit to hours of important reading time, I’d recommend starting with the movie. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili feels incredibly authentic, and I think will stay in my mind longer than David Ebershoff’s reimagining.