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Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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A-The Palace of IllusionsThe epic poem Mahabharata, penned in the 5th or 6th century BC and an important text for Hinduism, inspired Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 12th novel. Divakaruni (Queen of Dreams, 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, retells the story—which originally focused on the exploits of male characters—from the point of view of a fascinating woman.

The Story: In ancient India, Princess Panchaali, who was born out of a fire and narrates her own tale, defies tradition by simultaneously marrying five princes—the Pandava brothers—who are cheated out of their kingdom and forced into a long period of exile. She and her husbands embark on a disastrous quest to reclaim the throne, culminating in a destructive civil war that divides families and kingdoms. Throughout, Panchaali quarrels with her mother-in-law, engages in a complex friendship with the god Krishna, and pines for another man, Karna, the mixed-caste half-brother of her five husbands.
Doubleday. 360 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0385515995

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Panchaali is an admirably complex character—a spirited, fiery woman in an era dictated by men and their gods. … Divakaruni’s feminist reading of Indian lore offers readers a magical lens into the political interplay of gender, castes, birthright and life in the monarchy." Jennie Camp

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The prose of Panchaali’s narrative is biblically simple, the lessons hand-delivered, the plotline linear. … Divakaruni’s impulse to flesh out the women of the Mahabharata results in a charming and remarkable book." Nora Seton

Milwaukee Jrml Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"The author’s prose is as spirited as Panchaali herself, written with energy and humor. This bestselling author succeeds in making a 2,000-year-old work accessible and charming, star-stuff that can entrance earthly readers once again." Jackie Loohauis-Bennett

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Divakaruni masterfully describes the lyrical beauty of Indians and the elegant logic of Hinduism. … With this retelling, she also introduces Western readers to an ancient mythology—this time with complicated, strong, memorable heroines." Yvette Benavides

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Divakaruni, renowned for her skillful take on women’s relationships, creates a very believable character in Panchaali, a queen who must choose between making history or following her true desires. … The novel’s great weakness lies not with Divakaruni’s storytelling facility but with the scope of the project itself." Christine Selk

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[D]espite the glorious images, the poetic sentences, the spiritual beauty of the tale’s moral, making an epic poem read like a novel is a piece of alchemy even Divakaruni can’t really pull off. … The narration by the female protagonist feels not so much like an intimate revelation of a character as a voice recapping more exciting dramas that happened in a better story." Samantha Dunn

Critical Summary

Divakaruni set herself an epic task when she chose to novelize the enormously long and complex Mahabharata. She has transformed the daunting original into a fascinating and (mostly) accessible narrative, even for those unfamiliar with the story. Critics universally praised her beautiful, sparkling writing and recommended the work to readers, although some felt the rich and complex saga—74,000 verses, 1.8 million words—lost depth and introduced too many characters too quickly when reduced to a novel. For those readers who aren’t ready to tackle the original, The Palace of Illusions is a terrific introduction to an Indian classic—with a feminist bent.