Book Review: The Twentieth Wife

I have to be honest. When you’re a reader/writer on a tight budget sometimes you have to pick and choose what goodies you actually invest in. When it comes to buying books this often means I buy authors I already know and love. There are plenty of other books that catch my eye, gleaming seductively on the shelf, begging me to buy them, take them home, devour them… but usually I have to turn them down. There is always the library — and I do sometimes use it — but to me it just isn’t the same as owning the treasure yourself.

When our local Borders store shut down in 2011 I took advantage of the deeply discounted prices to scour the shelves for a few books and authors I’d never heard of before. This was my opportunity to invest in a small stack of promising new tales in a way I’m not usually able to. “The Twentieth Wife” was one of those books that begged me to rescue it from the deteriorating corporate giant and take it to a new and loving home. And so it sat for a few months. Watching me from the dusty shelf. Waiting for me to remember it.

A few weeks after NaNoWriMo (while I was feeling extra burnt-out) I went digging through my haphazard shelves. I didn’t want an old favorite. I didn’t want a familiar author. I wanted something new, and so I began reading “The Twentieth Wife”.

The beginning was a bit slow. I was being bombarded with names I wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce, a small working vocabulary of foreign words, and a culture I don’t know anything about. I have studied a lot of Asian history and culture for various regions, but India has not been one of them. This was a learning experience. But it was worth it. I stuck it out and soon I began to understand the words and recognize the names… even if I’m sure I still destroyed their pronunciation in my head. And once that began to click, the story started to come alive.

Indu Sundaresan has woven an incredible, very personal tale around the real-life history of the Taj Mahal. “The Twentieth Wife” starts the reader a few generations on the timeline prior to the man who would one day build the magnificent wonder in honor of his deceased wife. We follow a family of Persian refugees as they travel to India and eventually find favor with Emperor Akbar. Mehrunnisa, a child of the Persian family falls for Prince Salim, Akbar’s son, when she is only eight years old, declaring him to be the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. The Empress takes a liking to her and Mehrunnisa, under the Empress’s wing, begins to learn the workings of the imperial zenana while her father continues to teach her more of “men’s learning” than most women are ever allowed. Through the following years this book follows the stories of Mehrunnisa, Salim (who would become Emperor Jahangir), and their families through love both found and lost, political uprisings, assassination attempts, personal downfalls and triumphs, and the beginnings of a new era of the Mughal Empire.

This is a medium-speed read. Not so heavy that you must have a great deal of time and attention set aside for it, nor is it so light that you can fly through it in an afternoon (unless perhaps you are familiar with Indian history and the terms and descriptions don’t throw you off at first). But if you have an interest in historical fiction, Indian history and literature, or just a really wonderful, slightly exotic love story, I’d recommend “The Twentieth Wife”.

This is actually the first book in a trilogy. (A fact I discovered about halfway through reading the book.) You won’t see the Taj Mahal or anything immediately leading up to it in this book, but the story is grand enough on its own.

Indu Sundaresan has found her way onto my “books to buy” list and right now the last two books of this trilogy are at the top. Sometimes, tight budget or not, you just have to find a way to read an amazing tale.

End note: For an amazing series about writers living on a budget, you can visit my friend Rebekah’s blog for her 4-part series “Living on a Writer’s Budget“. I highly recommend it!

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Twentieth Wife

    • Julie, that’s exactly how I was. Loving historical fiction, but India is not a place I have studied so I was unsure if I’d like it. I was pleasantly surprised. The author’s talent for description is beautiful too.

  1. This is a great book! I read it several years ago and suggested it for my book discussion group. It fascinated me to see how royalty lived in that culture. Glad to know about the trilogy, I wasn’t aware of the other 2 books.

    • So glad to hear someone else who has read this! I only found out about the trilogy when I was looking up Indu’s website online to see what else she had written and it mentioned this was the first of the trilogy. =)

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