The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb, two Denmark- and Paris-based artists from the 1910s and 1920s. David Ebershoff’s book is a fictionalized version of their lives, and changes a few of the facts. But he sticks with the general sense of what happened in their lives, which is a rich and entertaining story.

Einar and Greta (Gerda’s fictitious counterpart) are a young married couple living in Copenhagen. He is a successful artist; she is still searching for her creative identity. One day, Greta asks the rather slight Einar to model another woman’s shoes and hose for a picture. From that incident was born Lili. The Danish Girl is the fascinating story of how Einar slowly vanished, with Lili taking his place. The impact of this change on Einar’s marriage and art, and Greta’s courage and love in adapting to this unusual situation, are at the core of the story. Ultimately, Lili had sex reassignment surgery to better match her possibly hermaphroditic body to her identity as a woman — despite claims to the contrary a few decades later, this was the first such surgery ever attempted.

I am giving this book a mostly positive review, and I think most people are likely to enjoy it, but I do have one major misgiving: I did not like Einar/Lili. Sure, I admired the courage necessary to go through the difficult process of discovery. But beyond the story of gender identity and Einar’s struggle to become his true self as Lili, I found Lili, especially, to be weak, self-centered, and dull. She offers nothing. She even stops painting and takes a job selling gloves at a department store. Once Lili becomes Lili and not Einar, there is nothing interesting about her. She shows no interest in others except in terms of what they can do for her.

Greta is courageous and generous, but we learn little, if anything, about what motivates her, what drives her. Where Lili is boring aside from her drive to match her life to her sexual identity, Greta is mysterious, and not in a good way. I have to fault Ebershoff for not digging deep enough with her, and I have to wonder the extent to which he even tried to look at the situation through her eyes. It’s almost as if he sees her as less of a person than Einar/Lili, while I see her as a much stronger and more intriguing person. My feelings are a bit too tepid to give this book a recommendation.

As for animals, there is a Wegener family dog named Edvard IV who comes to no harm, although he ages. His mother and littermates did not fare so well, though that is mentioned only in passing. There is a Manx cat named Sophie, and Ebershoff makes both benign and unpleasant references to other animals. Because of the latter, I will declare this book MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers.

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January 14, 2010 - Posted by | Book Reviews, dogs, families, historical fiction, pets | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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