Indu Sundaresan - The Twentieth Wife

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The Twentieth Wife: entertaining plot, plenty of details, but...

Jun 27, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The character of Mehrunnisa will certainly interest you.

Cons:The writing style is very simplistic, and the characters are flat.

The Bottom Line: Just barely three and a half stars, it's still an interesting novel and slice of history that doesn't get explored too often.


Usually, historical novels are set in Europe, with a bright, spunky heroine who overcomes great travails, and gets her man at the end. They're usually geared towards a young, female audience that haven't completely lost that bit of romanticism. Or they're heavily weighted, doorstop sized books that are chock full of characters, many plot twists, and if the reader is lucky, will immerse them in the color and vividness of the past.

With her first published novel, Indian author Indu Sundaresan tries to do just that. She takes the reader on a ride through a world that we hardly recognize, that of Mughal India in the sixteenth century, and harem life and politics.

No one would have thought that a child born to a family fleeing political upheveal in neighboring Persia would come to greatness. Especially when it is a girl child. In desperation, the father, Ghias, tries to abandon his infant daughter, Mehrunnisa, at the side of the road. But when the unexpected happens, her life is spared and she grows up into a great beauty, and it is through her eyes that we get to see her family's rise to the notice of the Emperor in Agra.

But being the spoiled, cosseted light of her family, the little girl catches the attention of Akhbar's wife, the powerful Ruqayya. And with Ruqayya comes her adopted son, Salim, eldest son and heir to the empire. It's inevitable that a passionate romance would strike up between these two, but the twist is clever enough to keep the reader interested until the end of the book, when the pair of doomed lovers finally reunite, and Salim - now Jahangir - gives Mehrunnisa the greatest prize of all.

For this tale is loaded with deceit, rebellion, warfare, arranged marriages and violence. But the author keeps her touch light enough to keep the gore to a minimum, and draw the reader into a world of art and artifice. The characters are not entirely one dimensional either, with Salim being an indecisive, borderline drunk that still managed to possess great charm, and Mehrunnisa a prideful, arrogant brat who's entirely too self-assured. Other characters don't fare nearly as well, and they remain little more than cardboard cyphers.

Despite the simplistic style and narrative, I was curious enough to keep reading until the last page. True, the endless descriptions of food and clothing did annoy me after a while, but that certainly added to the charm of the book. And the fact that the story circulated around the lives of Muslim women in India certainly made it interesting. They were noblewomen, and the lives of the servant class are barely seen, much less known, but the trappings of the story were gorgeous enough.

I'd say that this would be a good one for older teenagers that are curious about cultures outside of Europe and if they can manage the unusual setting and names, they'll probably enjoy it.

A sequel has just been published, Feast of Roses, that will continue the story of Jahangir and Mehrunnisa.


Recommend this product? Yes


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