The Twentieth Wife (Taj Mahal Trilogy #1) by Indu Sundaresan
Published February 18, 2003, by Washington Square Press
An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses — a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire. Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman — a legend in her own time — who was all but lost to history until now.
Random historical fiction alert! This is for my Pop Sugar Reading Challenge and also happens to be a re-read. I haven’t read this since high school, but I remembered really liking it. I took my original review down from four stars, for reasons I’ll explain, but I think I’m still really excited to read the next book in this series, The Feast of Roses.
First things first, if you’re looking for a love story … try elsewhere, or skip right to the next book. This is less about Salim and Mehrunnisa and more about all the historical events that kept them apart until they got married in their thirties. Honestly, this blurb is really misleading, because Mehrunnisa herself is absent for about half of this novel because her life was not nearly as exciting as Salim’s. But now that that’s out of the way…
This novel covers a LOT of ground. It starts when Mehrunnisa is born, and goes all the way until the marriage to Salim. There is certainly a lot of information and description of historical events that occur. I especially like that every chapter begins with an excerpt of a historical document from Mehrunnisa’s time that is incorporated into the upcoming chapter. Sundaresan is literally bringing these historical documents to life.
On the reverse, however, this historical document approach may be why very few of the characters feel very developed. The focus on the novel is on historical events, not people, and the character development suffers for it. You get only 2D impressions of most of the main characters, and 1D of all the supporting cast. Even the love story, which is supposed to be a big deal in this book, takes a backseat for a majority of the book. It’s very factual and interesting, but at times I started skimming because it felt like I was reading a nonfiction story. There’s nothing wrong with nonfiction, but that wasn’t why I was reading this novel.
I did like the book. I did. But I went into it thinking that it was something else other than what it actually was. The Feast of Roses might be the book that I was really remembering, since it actually gets into how Mehrunnisa controlled the throne. She was who I came to read about, but not much happened to her–when she was even on screen. This was really a novel about Salim, his struggle to ascend to the throne, and all the historical events that happened along the way. It’s a prequel to their love story, not the beginning of their love story, really.
If you enjoy historical fiction that is told more through facts and events than character stories–more like creative nonfiction, in a sense–then this is a really good book. But if you want a love story with good characters, this might not be the book that you want to read. They are really well written, so if you’re into the story I suggest just skipping right to The Feast of Roses. That’s probably what I’ll do in the future.