Review: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

March 12, 2016 | Penguin Random House RRP $16.00


Here is a delicate novel set in the 1920’s, that is about love and humanity in the face of extreme personal challenge. The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, is the story of married couple, Einar and Greta Wegener. They are both painters, Einar the more successful of the two, and together they live a bohemian life in Copenhagen. One day, Greta, the portrait painter of the pair, requests that Einar put on the dress of one of her subjects and model for her.

His wife knew first.

Such an intriguing first line, pointing to the complicated relationship to come. Einar’s is a tricky story of a transformation made more so by the time in which he lives, his marriage, his own search for his true self. Through it, Greta is really what can only be described as the perfect (patient) wife for Einar but at cost. Her open minded, all encompassing love for him dominates her and she loses part of herself. Lily becomes her life, muse and obsession, until both of them realise that things must change if they are ever to be the people they need to become.

Emotion and transformation is mirrored in the paintings and over time is reflected in the metamorphosis of their artistic expression, through subject, colour and style. Lily, removed completely from the artists way except as subject, is also a reflection of separateness.

These were two real people in history. Lili Elbe (Einar) is one of the first sexual reassignments recorded in history, though records of procedures are sketchy as much of the documentation was destroyed by the Nazi’s. Information has been gleaned through letters and diaries. Ebershoff has written a work of fiction using certain parts of their life and imagining the rest. The Danish Girl is NOT a biography (I am perplexed by criticism about departure from fact), but on the flip side, it may inspire you to search out the the true story for yourself. And isn’t that one of the best kinds of book? One that takes you beyond the closed back cover?

You can find out more about author David Ebershoff here



The real Lili Elbe, inspiration for The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff Credit: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

© 2015 Melissa Sargent