The Danish Girl
The Danish Girl is like a multilayered Flemish painting or tapestry. On the surface, it’s the story of the marriage of two painters, Clara and Einar. However, Einar Wegener was the first male to undergo successful gender affirming surgery. And The Danish Girl is also the story of a search for one’s true identity, and how one navigates that struggle within the boundaries of a relationship.
The novel opens in Copenhagen in the 1920s and the author has painted a rich landscape of the country and culture at the time, which I found almost as interesting as the storyline. We meet Clara and Einar after they have settled into a domestic routine, of sorts: two painters living in Copenhagen trying to make a living through their art. Known for his landscapes, Einar is the more acclaimed and successful of the two, while Clara finds herself painting portraits of well-known businessmen and society types. Clara is a young, willful, and wealthy California heiress who fell in love with Einar while enrolled in art classes at the Royal Academy, where he is a teacher. Despite being six years her senior, Einer was shy and awkward, and Clara pursued him somewhat relentlessly.
As the novel progresses, we discover that Einar has been encouraged by Clara to occasionally dress in women’s clothes when her female subjects are delayed or unable to make their sitting appointments. Einar is a slender, pretty man who is described as "beautiful" in the novel. Clara senses that Einar has a love of all things feminine, and starts to encourage him to dress as a woman, who they start introducing as Einar's distant cousin Lili to their friends. At first, this is a secret game between the pair, but as Einar needs to dress as Lili more and more, the dynamic in the marriage changes, making Clara increasingly uncomfortable. Clara believes that part of loving someone is doing whatever you can do to make them happy, and although she is ambivalent about Einar’s need to dress as Lili, her paintings of Lili start to garner her praise and acclaim in the art world.
The subject matter of The Danish Girl could have been treated as a spectacle, or voyeuristic experience, but it is treated sensitively by the author. The author sensitively renders Einar’s sometimes painful experiences with his changing identity, and we experience the distinct worlds of these two separate individuals. I was surprised to discover that this novel was first published in 2000. The story is especially topical given that transgender experiences are now being discussed on shows like Oprah, which signifies that the issue has become mainstream, or at least an acknowledged part of our cultural dialogue.
The Danish Girl is being made into a movie that is scheduled for release in the United States in 2011. Nicole Kidman will star as Lili. If reading is supposed to take you on a journey of the mind and expand your understanding of the world, The Danish Girl is certainly deserving of high praise.