A fictional account of the life of Lili Elbe, the first person to receive gender reassignment surgery. Lili’s journey begins as Einar Weneger on the day his wife Greta asks him to put on silk stockings and heels so that she can complete a portrait when her model doesn’t show up. The feeling of women’s clothes against his skin allows Einar to realize that he longs to release the female within him. Since Greta loves her husband unconditionally, she helps him to become the woman he wants to be, even though it eventually means letting Einar go completely. They face down the medical establishment together as Lili fights for the ability to physically become a woman. And while Einar’s transformation allows Greta to blossom as an artist and become famous in her own right, her sacrifice and loyalty are heartbreaking.
What the Armchair Critics Thought
This was a wonderful portrayal of marriage, love and self-sacrifice which was both tragic and uplifting. Ebershoff does a fine job of sensitively portraying Einer’s courageous transition into Lili. The way Lili appears and retreats as Einar learns to accept her is quite interesting – almost a split personality. It was incredibly brave for them to consult doctors in an era where people were locked up for being different. Some of us felt that the book was too voyeuristic and had to put it down sometimes. We were deeply moved by Greta’s devotion, but we did wonder why Ebershoff chose to fictionalize Lili Elbe’s real Danish wife Gerda into an American born heiress Greta? Was it because the real life Gerda was already famous before Lily came along and Ebershoff wanted to explore how the transition could benefit Lili’s partner in some way?