David Ebershoff‘s novel The Danish Girl is one of the many in my collection that I not only came upon by happenstance in the bookstore, but also one that I often find myself rereading compulsively. My copy is so battered that the laminate coating is slowly separating itself from the back cover; I keep on smoothing it down, but it insists upon emancipation.
At its heart, The Danish Girl is a love story, but truly, it’s more than merely that. The novel is based on the life of Lili Elbe and how she became to be the Danish girl of the book’s title. Elbe, as the reader comes to learn, was actually born as Einar Wegener, a Danish boy, who in his adulthood, comes to realize that he identifies more with women than with men. What’s truly interesting in this already-compelling tale is not that Einar became the first man to undergo a gender reassignment surgery, but that as both Lili and Einar, he remains dutifully and entirely bound… to his wife Greta.
Here Ebershoff takes a few liberties with fact and fiction, but to utterly successful results. He switches not only Greta’s nationality for the novel’s sake, but also her name; in reality, she was the Danish artist Gerda Wegener, who ultimately became famous in her own right for her paintings of her husband in fashionable womenswear.
Personally, I don’t think it matters here, what is truth and what is make-believe, since Ebershoff creates such a deeply profound fiction that fact means absolutely nothing. Instead, Ebershoff elegantly raises questions that beg to be answered — Why did Einar and Greta remain married? Why does Greta so greedily encourage Einar to become Lili? Why do Lili and Einar both stay so tied to Greta? — but just as elegantly, he leaves it to the reader to determine the answers.