A novel based on the story of the first known male-to-female sex change sounds potentially off-putting, doesn't it? I can't say the premise of The Danish Girl grabbed me right off the bat. But author David Ebershoff's historical fiction The 19th Wife was my one of my Books of the Year for 2009, and a friend's strong review of this book, his first novel, made me re-think my position on reading it.
The transgendered have been with us for longer than we realize, and Danish painter Einar Wegener was the first to undergo a successful surgical sex change from male to female, living as Lili Elbe for several years until her death in the mid-1930's. Ebershoff used Lili's own diaries and letters as part of his research into this little-known bit of history, and has built it into a remarkably moving and enlightening story.
Ebershoff's writing is very descriptive and the pace of the novel is almost languid at times, but it reads surprisingly quickly. The narration is in the third person, shifting perspective between Einar/Lili and Einar's American-born wife Greta. This provides insight into the characters and their situation from different angles, but also kept me as a reader at a slight emotional distance - not far enough to make it difficult to connect, but as if to prevent excessive intimacy.
And this is a very intimate story - not in the sense of graphic physical details (there are far fewer than one might expect), but in the way it explores the emotional makeup of two people in a marriage that's becoming more unusual by the day. This is as much Greta's story as Einar/Lili's, and in some ways she comes across most vividly. I believe that no one really knows what goes on within a marriage except the people in it, and in the Wegeners' case that may be truer than most. They have a genuine connection to one another that holds even as their relationship irrevocably changes.
The Danish Girl is a fascinating and beautiful novel.