Review: “The Danish Girl”

Review: The Danish Girl

Katie Biddle, Staff Writer

The novel “The Danish Girl,” by David Ebershoff, is a story loosely based on the real life of Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender women to undergo surgery to become female. Taking place in numerous places in Europe, mainly Copenhagen, Elbe’s struggle and victory is a splash of color against the drably described pre-World War ll Europe.

The story is made even more intriguing because of the time period, and the story that is commonly accepted today set against 1930s Europe brings it into sharp relief due to the unfamiliar surroundings.

As does the trailer for its movie counterpart, the novel opens with Einar (Lili) Wegener posing for his wife Greta’s portrait of an actress as a reference for the female form. From the first time Einar slips the dress over his head, the journey of Lili begins. The novel is paced oddly; as Lili comes and goes, ghostlike, the novel slows down, focusing more on aesthetic descriptions of single scenes and wonder at her appearance or disappearances, on her “lingering scent of mint and milk” and the amber beads and white collars that flutter and click throughout the story.

The book is ghostly, not meant to be filled with action but to force the reader to step back and watch as Lili slowly emerges.

The story focuses also on the relationship between Lili and her former wife, Greta; Ebershoff incorporates a study on marriage and its definitions into the novel. Greta is supportive of her husband, but struggles with every step. She is the one who suggests,“Why don’t we call you Lili?” while later lamenting because “Einar Wegener laid in memory’s coffin.” Slowly and meticulously developed over the entire novel, Greta’s character offers another point of view on Lili’s transformation, that of the forgotten wife; it’s as interesting to watch her evolve and transform as Lili.

The men in the novel also explore the relationships between Lili’s lovers and Greta, Lili’s doctors and Einar, and Greta with all others in the outside world, starkly contrasting with the isolated world of Lili as the novel progresses. The time period and setting of the novel highlights these relationships especially; often-taboo, kept-secret relationships are brought into the light for readers while being hidden from their world. The reader is shown a different side of love and it’s evolution, and how hard it is to love someone but need to hide yourself and that love from the world.

The novel is separated into years, making the lengthiness of the transition from Einar to Lili and the thought that goes into her transformation relatable. Readers feel as though they are suffering too, forced to drag out years in someone else’s body; how the characters evolve year to year also makes the chosen structure work particularly well.

Though the topic is one that needs to be explored and more commonly accepted, it only partially saves the slowness of the novel. It constantly reexamines the same problems, perhaps meaning to mirror the repetitive worrying of Lili; it’s an artistically appreciated device but to the common reader a bit slow and not something one can sit down and  digest in a weekend.

The sexual and mental change and content described in “The Danish Girl” does make it a bit higher-level; a few scenes could be rated PG-13 or even R for sexual content. The film, starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, and Ben Whishaw, is rated R. The topic is presented simply as a part of life, but the rating is fair considering content.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Danish Girl” as I’d never read such an intimate account of transgender transformation and was intrigued to learn more because of the increasing number of people in the world who are undergoing similar transitions.

As an insight into a darker, more secret world, I recommend this novel to those who wish to broaden their understanding of humans and their lives.