Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Danish Girl - David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl
Title: The Danish Girl
Author: David Ebershoff
Publication Date: 2000
Pages: 336
How I Found It: I knew about the movie adaptation when it was nominated for Academy Awards and then Suzanne at Tattooed Missionary read the book and spoke highly of it.
Date Completed: 4/7/17

Summary: When painter Einar Wegener is asked my his wife, Greta, to stand in for a female portrait subject, something inside shifts. Lili is awoken. The book fictionalizes the real life of one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery.

What I Thought: I'm making a concerted effort lately to read more books by/about people who have had/are having very different life experiences than I am. I firmly believe that reading stretches your capacity for empathy and, in such a divisive time in our world, that's something I want to continue to grow in myself. Plus, I want to be serious about challenging my own biases and understanding what and why others feel and believe differently than I do.

So, this book fits right into that. As a cisgender woman who has spent much of her life in the evangelical world, I just don't have a lot of experience with or understanding of transgender issues. A lot of us don't. Transgenders are a relatively small portion of the population and, while Hollywood is telling their stories more and more, most of us have never knowingly interacted with a transgender person. My only known experience was when my school group encountered a couple of intoxicated cross-dressers outside the Moulin Rouge in Paris; those men may not have even been transgender, but it was an eye-opening experience for sheltered, teenage me. Years later, cue HB2 a.k.a. the "Bathroom Bill." It has caused quite a ruckus here in North Carolina and across the country. Suddenly, it seems more urgent and important to understand both sides of this debate.

In some ways, this book helped me understand transgender issues better. It raised questions and thoughts I had not had before and I really pushed myself to view Einar/Lili with empathy and try to understand his/her emotional perspective. On the other hand, my limited pre-existing understanding of being transgender leads me to believe that Ebershoff did not do a great job portraying its complexities at points. He makes it seem as though Einar/Lili may be suffering more from dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) rather than coming to identify as a transgender person. I realize that I cannot know what it feels like to be transgender and Ebershoff's portrayal may be accurate for some. As a reader, though, I felt it raised more questions than answers. It helped explain Einar's desperation to become Lili, but it did not help the reader to see as more than a mental issue. Lili's experience felt incredibly different from that of Kenny in The Sweet In-Between, which I read for grad school a few years back. Of course, every transgendered person is going to have a different journey, but Lili's felt particularly driven by her mental state. 

Mostly, this book made me feel a lot of things about Greta (real name: Gerda Wegener). She is extremely supportive of Lili throughout the story, as she seemed to have been in real life. Ebershoff did a great job of exploring her inner monologue, though. He really showed the complexity of her feelings about the matter and how deeply she cared for her spouse. I really liked that he added in a backstory for Greta, though I'm not sure how much of it is accurate. She was easily the most well-developed character in the book. There were moments my heart just broke for her and there were moments when I felt her culpability in the whole situation. 

The book definitely drove me to learn more about the real people who inspired the novel. If you're interested in learning more about them, too, there is an article from The Telegraph which includes some photographs of both Einar and Lili as well as one of Gerda's portraits of Lili. 

This book stretched me. It made me uncomfortable at times, as I expected it to. Ultimately, it's a well-written, compelling story about love and hope and loss and people. It definitely gave me some food for thought. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Will I Re-Read: Unlikely

A Reduced Review: As I try to read more books about people very different than me, this story about a transgender artist fit the bill perfectly. 

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