A Thousand Splendid Suns recounts the experiences and emotions of two Afghani women, Mariam and Laila, whose lives become entangled with the history of recent wars in their country. Mostly bleak and heartrending, their story does offer the promise of hope and happiness in a land ravaged by warfare, gender conflicts, and poverty.
The novel begins in 1974, when Mariam is fifteen. She lives with her single mother in an isolated spot outside of Herat, an Afghan community of artists. Mariam’s father, Jalil, runs the local movie theater. He does not live with her. Mariam’s mother, whom Mariam calls Nana, was a servant in Jalil’s home when she became pregnant. Jalil had three other wives and never offered to marry Mariam’s mother. Instead, he built a modest house for her on a hill out of town. Jalil comes to visit Mariam once a week and charms her into believing the he will one day fully claim her. Nana, a bitter and sickly woman, tries to destroy Mariam’s fantasies of her father. Mariam’s mother is fully aware that Jalil will eventually betray Mariam, which he does. Although Jalil finally takes Mariam into his home, he gives in to his wives’ demands to send Mariam away by offering her as a bride to an older man.
Her future husband is Rasheed, a successful shoemaker in Kabul. He is a big man, and his size alone frightens Mariam when she first sees him. Before she leaves her father’s side, Mariam swears she will never again speak to him for not allowing her to stay in his house.
Rasheed believes that a man should rule over his wife. He does not allow Mariam to go outside without him, and she must also dress in a burka whenever they leave the home. Mariam, however, remains in Rasheed’s relative good favor until she has a miscarriage and fails several more times to bear a child. With each of his wife’s miscarriages, Rasheed becomes crueler and more distant. Soon she is routinely beaten for trivial and often made-up reasons.
The story then switches to Laila, who has an adoring father who is a teacher and makes sure that Laila is well educated—one of the new breed of modern Afghan women. Laila’s mother, however, dotes on her sons and mostly ignores Laila. Her mother falls into a deep depression when her sons go off to war and then are killed. The Russian and Taliban armies intensify their clashes, and one day a missile destroys Laila’s house. Her parents are killed, and Laila is injured.
Rasheed, who lives down the street, pulls Laila out of the ruins and insists that Mariam nurse her back to health. In Laila’s background is a story about a male childhood friend, Tariq, with whom Laila had recently had sex. Laila soon discovers that she is pregnant. Tariq has left with his family for Pakistan to escape the war in Afghanistan. Laila did not know about the pregnancy until after Tariq was gone.
As Laila is recuperating, a stranger comes to visit and claims he met Tariq in a hospital. Tariq was badly wounded, he says, and died of his injuries. (Later, Laila learns that Rasheed paid the man to tell her this story. Everyone, including Rasheed, knew that Tariq and Laila were in love.) After the man’s visit, Rasheed offers to marry Laila. Knowing she cannot make a living for herself and her baby, she agrees. Mariam does not welcome this arrangement.
As time passes, Rasheed guesses that Laila’s daughter, Aziza, is not his. A couple of years later, Laila produces Rasheed’s baby—a son named Zalmai. Rasheed, after the birth of his son, begins to treat Laila much like he has treated Mariam. Laila is now beaten when she talks back to him.
One day, Tariq returns. He expresses his love, and Laila takes him to see his daughter, whom Laila has been forced to place in an orphanage so the little girl would be guaranteed food. Rasheed has lost his business, and money is scarce. When Rasheed finds out that Tariq is back and has been to the house, he beats Laila. His rage intensifies when Laila talks back, and he tries to strangle her. Mariam, fearing for her friend’s life, hits Rasheed in the head with a shovel, killing him. In order to save Laila and the children, who might be implicated in the murder, Mariam turns herself over to the Taliban. She is sentenced to death.
Laila and Tariq run away with both children and live in Pakistan. But after the United States invades Afghanistan, the family returns to Kabul. Their love for each other, as well as their love for their homeland, despite its cruelties and harshness and hardships, ends the novel on a high note, suggesting the possibility of a better future.