Monday, May 10, 2010

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

Synopsis From The Back Cover:

Inspired by the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his wife, this tender portrait of a marriage asks:  What do you do when someone you love wants to change?  It starts with a question, a simple favor asked of a husband by his wife on an afternoon chilled by the Baltic wind while both are painting in their studio.  Her portrait model has canceled, would he slip into a pair of women's shoes and stocking for a few moments so she can finish painting on time?  "Of course," he answers, "Anything at all."  With that, one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the twentieth century begins.

I had agreed to participate on this TLC Book Tour with a little trepidation.  As a gay man I have always been a little leery of becoming too involved in anything that even hints at transsexualism, mainly because of the questions that are normally asked by overly curious and naive straight people.  I can't even tell you how many times I've been asked if I wanted to be a woman.  For the most part the intentions behind the question aren't malicious, but either way it's just an annoying question.  It's just assumed, by some, that since I'm gay that somehow I want to be a woman, or I want the other guy to become a woman.  Needless to say neither is the case.

The reason I decided to read, review the book is because I wanted to explore my own feelings about the transsexual community, which to be honest, I don't always understand nor have I always wanted to understand.  Growing up gay was hard enough for me to deal with, I couldn't imagine what having to deal with gender identity issues would add on top of that.  Now I knew, reading one fictionalized account of a single individual wouldn't give me a broad understanding of the issue, but I was hoping that it would give me a nice base to start out with.

Now that I got my motivation out of the way, I must say that this book gave me what I wanted.  It allowed me to explore my own feelings by witnessing the transformation of Einar Wegener into Lili Elbe.  Einar was a respected Danish painter who specialized in landscapes ( I was only able to find one example of his works, Vue d'Italie, online though I found other mentions of his paintings).  He is a rather quiet man who doesn't communicate with others very well and seems to be slowly turning in on himself.  He seems uncomfortable in his skin, like he doesn't quite belong in his body.   Lili on the other hand is vibrant and alive.  She wants to experience everything life has to offer.  She is the butterfly to Einar's caterpillar.

The book opens when his wife Greta (Gerda in real life) asks him to help her finish a portrait.  Her model, opera singer Anna Fonsmark, had canceled on her and she needed someone to model the stockings and shoes so she could complete the portrait on time.  At first Einar is unsure of the situation, feeling a little apprehensive and excited all at the same time.  He agrees to help her, and the rest of the book chronicles the aftermath of that simple request.

Their relationship if central to this book, without the loving relationship they had between eachother, I'm not sure that Lili Elbe would have ever been born.  It was Greta's love and understanding that allowed Einar to become Lili.  The story is both a love story between Great and Einar, but also one between Great and Lili.  The book examines what happens in a marriage when one of the parties decides that they are in fact the opposite gender.  How does a marriage survive that?  How does the relationship change?  Which it has to do, these two individuals have to discover how to transition form a relationship built upon marriage to that of friends, maybe even sisters.

You can tell that Greta loves Einar, that she wants to protect, and shelter him from all that can harm him.  For me she was the hero of the book, she shunts her own feelings aside to make sure Einar can become the person he needs to be.  She is his backbone, encouraging him to become Lili.  She shows Lili how to dress, accompanies her on outings, and even introduces her to the general public where Lili starts to feel her growing attraction to men and her need to be loved.  When Einar starts to physically weaken, when the stress of constantly going back and forth between being Einar and Lili, starts to kill him, it's Greta that pushes him to go to the doctor.  It's Greta who finds the one doctor that takes what Einar and Lili are feeling seriously.  It's Greta that supports Einar's decision to undergo experimental surgery and to become Lili once and for all.  Greta is the catalyst that allows Lili to be born, but also allows Einar to pass away.

Now at the same time, she is benefiting from this transformation. It's her portraits of Lili that catapults her to success as a painter, the painting I found is called La Sophistiquette, and while I can't assume that it is of Lili, it's what I would think the portraits of her would have been like .  She is always wanting Einar to bring Lili out and pose for her.  So as a reader you are always wondering about her motivation a bit, plus you have the aspect of this not being a very sexual relationship.  Is Greta helping Einar down the path of becoming Lili based out of pure love?  I'm not really sure.  I think 99% of it was, but I think the other 1% was career aspiration and maybe even a little bit of wanting to see their marriage to end.  Maybe then she could find someone she does have that physical connection with, which she does by the end of the book.  I don't even think that 1% was intentional on her part, it felt more subconscious.

By the time the book came to a close, I wasn't ready for it to end.  I had become lost in this private struggle for identity and acceptance.  I had become enamored by the truly loving relationship that the three of them had together.  I have found a new admiration for transgender individuals who are simply wanting to be who they are outside to match who they are on the inside.  I will no longer be annoyed with misguided heterosexuals when they ask me if I want to be a woman.  I will simply answer the question truthfully and let it go from there.  I can only hope that I can show half the strength and courage that Lili and the millions like her show everyday by simply being who they are.  I'm glad I read this book, and while this review can't fully explain what a truly wonderful experience it was to read it, I hope that everyone who reads this review takes the time to discover it for themselves.

I would like to thank Lisa of TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate on this tour.

You can visit David Ebershoff's website where you will find a description of the book that is more eloquent and makes a hell of a lot more sense than my rambling thoughts.  You will also find a audio download of Uma Thurman reading the first chapter of the book as well as info on the upcoming movie adaptation of The Danish Girl.

You can find other stops on the tour by clicking here.


Amanda said...

It was very difficult for me to read this book because I know someone with these same sorts of gender identity issues, but I'm still glad I decided to participate in this tour. My review will be up in about a week.

Athira said...

Thanks for this excellent review! This is a subject matter I am interested in, but especially from Greta's side. I've so far only read reviews on Einer's side of the story, with occasional references to Greta. I'm glad to read your thoughts on Greta's reaction. I'm pretty keen to read this book now.

Jen - devourer of books said...

This sounds like a very moving story, I definitely want to read this, thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

This is the second review I've read for this one and it sounds like a fascinating story of a relationship that evolves in a way I'm sure they never expected.

bermudaonion said...

Fantastic review! I love that you found paintings by Greta (Gerda) and Einer. I was amazed that Greta was as open minded as she was way back then and I admired her for it.

Staci said...

I think your review of this one is the best I've read yet. I liked reading this from your perspective. I've never connected being gay with wanting to be transsexual at all. As you've found your own personal journey one with hardships, I can only imagine this person's transformation. I've often asked myself how I would respond if my husband were to be transsexual...I've pretty much concluded that I would never stop loving him/her and would do everything I could to help his/her life be the best possible. I definitely want to read this one!! Thanks for a pretty kick-ass review!

Trisha said...

I am so glad others are enjoying this book. I thought it a very moving story that treated a difficult subject to understand delicately and clearly.

vvb32 reads said...

good review. but most interesting to hear about you and your relationship with this book. thanks for sharing some of yourself.

Simcha said...

Wow, this sounds like a very powerful book. I don't think this is a subject that I've ever really thought about before, and I can't imagine the kind of struggles Gerda and Einer were up against. Now I'm really interested in learning more about this couple.

Cathy said...

Thanks for an excellent review. This sounds like a wonderful book about some very remarkable people.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I heard about this book a while ago but it didn't appeal to me at all. However, between your review and Florinda's, it sound like I'm really missing out on a great book!

LisaMM said...

Ryan, this is an exceptional review. Thank you so much for personalizing it in such a way to really touch the hearts of others. We really appreciate your participation in this tour. Thanks again!