1999, 310 p.
I’d been meaning to read this for some time, but was spurred into action to read it before Nicole Kidman gives it the kiss of death when it is filmed next year (see Update below). I hadn’t realized that it was based on a true story until reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, which made me re-think some of my initial skepticism about the details of the ending.
The book is set in various European cities in the 1920s and 30s, and explores the marriage of two artists, Einar Wegerer and his American wife Greta Waud. It was at Greta’s suggestion that Einar first cross-dressed within their marriage, and his increasing excursions as ‘Lily Elba’ culminated in the world’s first sex-change surgery.
There are a series of triangles in this book: Greta and her relationship with her husband Einar/Lili; the relationship between Einar/Lili and his childhood friend Hans, who himself took up with Greta; the relationship between Einar/Lily and his wife’s twin brother Carlisle. There’s another triangle too- Greta has to work through her grief from the death of her first husband Teddy and her loss of her husband Einar as he transformed into Lily. The complexity of their marriage raises questions about love, acceding to and anticipating a loved one’s wishes, sexuality, gender, loss, identity and friendship.
The book has a quiet, restrained tone, and falls to its ending with a sad inevitability. I wonder how it will come over on the screen- the ending is very cinematic. I hope that Kidman is more in “The Hours” mode rather than “Australia” mode, but I think she’ll need more than a prosthetic nose.
Update: When I wrote this post several years ago, there was talk of Nicole Kidman playing, no doubt, the Lily role that is played by Eddie Redmayne in the film that has just been released.