Though the title character of David Ebershoff’s debut novel is a transsexual, The Danish Girl is less explicitly concerned with transgender issues than the mysterious and ineffable nature of love and transformation in relationships.
Loosely based on the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener who, in 1931, became the first man to undergo a sex-change operation, The Danish Girl borrows the bare bones of his story as a starting point for an exploration of how Wegener’s decisions affected the people around him. Chief among these is his Californian wife, Greta, also a painter, who unwittingly sets her husband’s feet on the path to transformation when, trying to finish a portrait, she asks Einar to stand in for her female sitter. Putting on her clothes and shoes, he is shaken:
Einar could concentrate only on the silk dressing his skin, as if it were a bandage. Yes, that was how it felt the first time: the silk was so fine and airy that it felt like a gauze-a balm-soaked gauze lying delicately on healing skin. Even the embarrassment of standing before his wife began to no longer matter, for she was busy painting with a foreign intensity in her face. Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.
Greta encourages her husband not only to dress like a woman, but to take on a woman’s persona, as well. What starts out as a harmless game soon evolves into something deeper, and potentially threatening to their marriage. Yet Greta’s love proves to be enduring if not immutable.
Ebershoff’s historical prestidigitation is remarkable, making it seem easy to create the sights and sounds and smells of 1930s Denmark. Even more remarkable is his treatment of Greta: he gets inside her head and heart, and renders her in such loving detail that her reactions make perfect sense. Ebershoff’s sensitivity to Greta is one of the finest achievements of this startling first novel; Einar is more of a cipher. In the end, this is Greta’s book and David Ebershoff has done her proud. -Sheila Bright