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Review of 'The Danish Girl'

I selected this novel from our reading group list because I’ve always been drawn to art and artists, and have watched so many films in which the artistic process is represented: ‘Vince and Theo’ and ‘Turner’ are favourites, as is ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ – all films in which enthralling artistic and creative processes are dramatised. I hadn’t read or even heard of ‘The Danish Girl’ until I saw the trailer for the film. Owing to the stunning cinematography apparent in that trailer I immediately felt compelled to watch it at the cinema - and on my own too (my very first time).

The expansive Danish sets are gorgeous: and the streets, the studio interiors and painting set-ups, and even the soundtrack, all add up to make the first part of the film a visual and audio kaleidoscope from which I could not drag myself. I’d hoped that the book might express this glorious artistry just as the film had. That was the reason I selected this book. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

The story is loosely based on the real life story of Greta (Gerda in the film) and Lili (who begins the story as Greta’s husband Einar). They are both painters who, when the story begins, live in Denmark in the year 1925. Their painting styles are very different, as are their characters. Soon, Einar is encouraged to dress as a female ballet dancer to assist Greta with a portrait, and his female-dressed persona, Lili, grows massively in importance, seeming sometimes like a parasite, and other times like a second personality. Interestingly, as time goes on, it becomes apparent it is Einar who is the parasite.

This first section is my favourite part of the book. Visually gorgeous on film, it reads reasonably well too, being psychologically rich and complex (though I don’t believe I would relate to it this way, had I not seen the film first). However, though I have no problems whatsoever regarding gender issues, and completely empathise with Einar’s terrible health problems and feeling of gender displacement, it is at the point at which he seeks medical help that the book (and the film, to a large extent) fall apart for me. Though there were some touching moments and many terrifying, unpleasant and horrific moments, I felt massively disconnected from the characters, particularly Einar, once the tale became an excruciating psycho-medical drama of gender reassignment, rather than an artistic biography with deep characterisations. That’s a very personal perspective, of course, and I’m aware that for many viewers, the art will never be anything but incidental to this particular story.

I was reluctant to complete the book. I knew that the tale would end with the painful fading of Lili, who had risked, lost and gained so much. I finished reading the book about 7/8ths of the way through, and was content to leave it there. I could happily re-watch the first half hour of the film, ‘The Danish Girl’ but feel no compulsion whatsoever to trawl through any part of David Ebershoff’s novel again. Though he’s undoubtedly an interesting writer, and the subject matter should have tugged at my heartstrings, I just couldn’t feel involved. Without that, I struggle to continue with any story.

I wanted to adore this book, but I was mainly disappointed and bored. The book dragged, being two or three times longer than it needed to be, and was far too full of graphic content for my liking, and those parts really were not appealing or easy to read!

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