by Indu Sundaresan. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Library copy. I read this book after finding it recommended by Ali on the Diversity Rocks! Challenge blog in a list of historical fiction. The Twentieth Wife is a 17th century saga of Indian Empress Jur Nahan. The story opens when her mother gives birth to her in a tent during a raging storm in the desert. Her family is on the run after her father falls into disgrace in their Persian home city. They join a caravan of traders and by happy chance they manage to get into the good graces of the Emperor Akbar of India. Mehrunnisa, the given name of the future Empress, grows up beautiful, intelligent and charming. She falls in love with the Emperor's son at the tender age of eight and spends her life working towards her ambition to become his favored and most powerful wife.
The story is based on actual events in the history of India and the lives of some of the most well known Indian and Persian rulers. Sundaresan has shaped the story into a passionate and thrilling love story. Her descriptions of the desert wind, the intoxicating scent of blooming flowers, and the delicate flavors of rich banquets make the story a feast of delights. The plot follows a fairytale structure, where Mehrunnisa's poor beginnings are overcoming by her exquisite beauty, good luck and ambitious cunning. In general I have little patience for this genre, being far more practical myself, but this book drew me in and I found myself fascinated by the imaginative and vivid descriptions of the lifestyle and culture. If you enjoy romantic historical fiction you will love this book. Sandaresan has written a sequel called The Feast of Roses. You can read excerpts from all of her books at her website. She also has a fascinating essay about Mughal women and the building of the Taj Mahal here.
Curled Up With a Good Book (interesting analysis from a feminist perspective)
Simon & Schuster