In early 2001, David Ebershoff released a short, beautiful book called The Danish Girl. The novel, set in the 1920s and '30s, is about a painter named Einar Wegener who, with the tentative blessing of his wife, Greta, becomes the first man to successfully undergo a sex-change operation. The writing is a revelation from the very first page, as Einar, relaxing with Greta in their Copenhagen apartment, paints a roiling black sea:
The neighbor below was a sailor, a man with a bullet-shaped head who cursed his wife. When Einar painted the gray curl of each wave, he imagined the sailor drowning, a desperate hand raised, his potato-vodka voice still calling his wife a port whore. It was how Einar knew just how dark to mix his paints: gray enough to swallow a man like that, to fold over like batter his sinking growl.
In just that half paragraph, the work that Ebershoff does is tremendous: establishing Einar's all-consuming interior doubts, his confusion about gender and marriage, and his worldview. It's ornate and sorrowful, just as one would imagine Einar's paintings to be. It's Ebershoff's portraiture of Einar and Greta's marriage—a partnership in every sense of the word, and a true friendship, as they both transform in new and unexpected ways—that makes The Danish Girl truly exceptional. Most readers don't understand until the end of the novel that the story of the Wegeners is based on real life; Einar was the first successful MTF transsexual in the world, and Greta willingly sacrificed her marital status out of love for her husband.
Ebershoff's newest novel, The 19th Wife, takes on a much more famous historical target than the Wegeners: The titular wife is Ann Eliza Young, the exiled bride of Brigham Young, and the novel is a sweeping history of Mormon polygamy, a kind of fictional counterpart to Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.
Where The Danish Girl had a miniaturist's ardor for precision, Wife throbs with ambition. It's a pastiche of fictional documents: autobiographies, theses culled from the confidential files of Brigham Young University, and an epistolary creed. There's a murder mystery, a love story, and a pioneer narrative.
There are similarities between the two: The fascinating thing about Wife is that, as Danish Girl was not really about gender identity, Wife is not about Mormonism. Instead, it's about our faith, in our husbands and wives, in our gods, in our governments and learning institutions, and in the strangers all around us. The two books couldn't be more different, but at their core they're the same: They're about the human heart, and what it can withstand, and what it cannot.
David Ebershoff reads Tues Sept 9, Third Place Books, 7 pm, free.