The main character in The Danish Girl, the brilliant first novel by David Ebershoff ’91, is a man with a medical problem. He suffers from periodic, inexplicable spells of bleeding and exhaustion, and he is convinced he has a uterus and ovaries sealed away somewhere up inside his rib cage. Einar Wegener has lived his life as a man, but he has lately begun to assume and alternate between his own personality and that of a woman named Lili Elbe. It is 1929, and Wegener and his wife, Greta, independently consult with a series of physicians about his problems. The couple ends up facing a choice between two radical surgical procedures to treat Einar: a brand-new operation called a lobotomy or an even more mysterious surgery that will have only one survivor – Lili.
Inspired by accounts of the world’s first sex-change operation, The Danish Girl is the story of the relationships between Greta, Einar, and Lili. Set in the late 1920s in the painstakingly rendered cities of Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden, the lives of Einar and Greta seem idyllic at the novel’s opening. Einar is a successful landscape painter, and Greta, a former student with artistic ambitions of her own, is the beautiful and wealthy heiress of a California orange-growing family.
A portraitist, Greta paints works that are "oversized and glossy . . . so shiny and hard you could clean them like windows." In the words of one gallery owner who declines to show her work, they are "too rapturous." But when Greta meets Lili, that all changes. While working on the portrait of a female opera singer in her studio, Greta asks her husband – who is more delicate and finely featured than his wife – if he would mind trying on the woman’s stockings and shoes. With "the child’s fist of his heart beating in his throat," Einar pulls on the shoes and stockings and begins a new, second life as Lili –a woman who also becomes the subject of Greta’s paintings.
The complex interdependence of Greta, Einar, and Lili drives the plot of The Danish Girl through emotional terrain as dramatic as it is difficult to predict. Greta’s love for her husband is palpable and closely felt, but so is her doting, maternal affection for the waif-like Lili. It is Greta who pleads with her husband not to go through with a lobotomy, for fear he will lose more in the procedure than he realizes. Einar, who considers Greta’s most American traits "her urge to be radical... and her taste for silver jewelry," is an excruciatingly vulnerable little man. He never seems quite equal to the task of reconciling his wife’s artistic ambitions, the woman blossoming inside of him, and his own sense of self.
Einar does muster enough strength to find a solution to the problem of sharing his body with a woman, but it is in Ebershoff’s portrayal of this woman that the work falls a little short. As Lili emerges from the corners of Einar’s mind, it is clear that she is not going to possess any of his strengths or talents. In fact, Lili’s only skills seem to be fainting and sitting still for Greta’s portraits. She needn’t have been an Amazon, but her transition begs some important questions: what, for example, has happened to the finely tuned sensibilities that made Einar a successful artist?
The Danish Girl is a reminder that there was a time when the battle for gender identity was played out one person at a time. Einar Wegener has the support of his wife throughout the book, but, as his surgical options make clear, this struggle is taking place long before gender was considered anything but an absolute designation. The measure of Ebershoff’s achievement is in how well this book conjures the ignorance of its time, and how well its story makes plain the devastation this ignorance can bring.