The close-up of a mouth and chin and the muted painting of a pleased, plump woman on the cover of The Danish Girl parallel the direct, unpretentious writing within. This fictionalized account of 1920s Danish artist Einar Wegener and his artist wife, Greta, is billed as a love story. But there’s a twist: Einar becomes, after a series of operations, Lili Elbe, the Danish girl of the cover and title, a good quarter-century before the term "transsexual" was coined. The ramifications of Greta’s constant though conflict-filled love for Einar-Lili are the heart of the novel.
Though the subject seems fit only for flippant or sensationalistic treatment, David Ebershoff, to the contrary, just wants to tell a good story. The couple is followed, in atmospheric, accumulating detail, from boggy Jutland to late-’20s Paris to, finally, Dresden, Germany, on the Elbe river. There Lili completes the transition and takes her new name from the eternally quiet river.
The inner atmospheres of Einar and Greta in their turbulent "great cave of wedlock" live in concise phrases: "Her head was held up by a throat tight with tendon" or (Einar summed up by a childhood friend) "A little boy with a secret. That’s all. No different from the rest of us."
A few possible quibbles with The Danish Girl may be only differing shades of perspective between its author and American readers. The slow-paced early pages of dark Denmark and its arm’s-length Northern Europeans could make getting hold of the story difficult. And the near-universal acceptance that Lili encounters seems untrue to life. (Guilt and doubt beset Greta and Lili privately, however; the focus remains on their struggle.)
The marriage story that Ebershoff has unearthed either has universal resonance or is a rare love for the ages. In either case, his clear-eyed, absorbing novel is a little different, and worthwhile.
Dennis Shea is the MT proof reader. E-Mail email@example.com.
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