A Thousand Splendid Suns is divided into four parts. Part 1 tells the story of Mariam, a young girl born in Afghanistan in the 1950s. Part 2 describes the early life of Laila, who was born in Kabul in the late 1970’s. The lives of the two women intersect in Part 3. Part 4 is from Laila’s perspective. Throughout the story, global and regional power struggles bring chaos and destruction to both women’s lives, and to the country of Afghanistan.
Mariam spends the first fifteen years of her life living with her mother, Nana, in a small kolba (shack) built for them by Mariam’s father, Jalil. Nana and Jalil were not married when Nana became pregnant with Mariam, and Nana often reminds Mariam that she is a harami, an illegitimate child. Jalil visits Mariam weekly, and Mariam longs to be accepted by her father as his other children are. Mariam has one dear friend, Mullah Faizullah, the town tutor. He teaches Mariam from the Koran and cares for Mariam like family. On Mariam’s fifteenth birthday, Jalil does not fulfill his promise to take her to the cinema. It is Mariam’s one wish to be seen around town with her father. When Jalil does not arrive, Mariam leaves her home to find him. Mariam is turned away from her father’s home. When she is taken back to her kolba, Mariam discovers that Nana has hung herself.
Mariam feels responsible for Nana’s death. When Mariam asked Jalil to take her to see “Pinocchio,” Nana begged Mariam not to leave her alone. Mullah Faizullah tries to comfort Mariam, by visiting her as much as he can. Jalil’s wives soon tell Mariam that she is to be married. Mariam begs her father not to send her away, but Jalil’s decision has already been made. Mariam is married to Rasheed, a shoemaker nearly thirty years older than Mariam. When Jalil sends Mariam to Kabul to live with her new husband, Mariam tells Jalil she never wishes to see him again.
Rasheed’s Islamic beliefs are fundamentalist, and he expects Mariam to keep house, respect her husband, and cover herself when she leaves their home. Kabul is a confusing place for Mariam. While Mariam wears a burqa in public, she sees other women wearing makeup and high heels. Within a few years, Mariam becomes pregnant, and Rasheed prays for a boy. Fariba, a woman from Rasheed’s neighborhood, discovers Mariam bleeding. Rasheed takes Mariam to the hospital, and a doctor confirms that Mariam has had a miscarriage. Soon, Rasheed’s critical attitude toward his wife turns abusive.
In 1978, the political environment in Afghanistan is chaotic. The communist party gains power and eventually overthrows the Afghan government and executes its president. Fariba’s daughter, Laila, is born during this revolution.
Laila has never known her brothers, Ahmad and Noor. The two young men are members of the Afghan resistance fighting against the communist rule of Soviet Russia. Laila’s Mammy is often unwell, in bed, and finds fault with her husband. Hakim, whom Laila calls Babi, is a teacher at the university in Kabul. Babi is tender with Laila and patient with Mammy. When Laila’s family is informed of her brother’s deaths, Mammy is despondent. Laila feels guilty for not grieving as deeply as Mammy. Laila cares more for her dearest friend, Tariq, than she does for her brothers.
Tariq, just a few years older than Laila, is kind to her and a fierce protector. Even though Tariq has lost a leg, he fights neighborhood boys when they bully Laila. As they grow older, Laila becomes more aware of the gossip that surrounds her friendship with Tariq. Though Laila worries about her reputation, she allows her relationship with Tariq to become intimate. By 1992, Laila is fourteen. Communist forces in Afghanistan have been overthrown, and the city of Kabul becomes a battleground for rival warlords. When Tariq tells Laila that his family is leaving Afghanistan, Laila is overcome. The young couple sleep together, even though they have been taught that this is a sin against Allah. Laila refuses to go with Tariq; she will not leave her parents behind.
Babi finally convinces Mammy to leave Kabul, even though it is Mammy’s dearest wish to see her sons’ cause prevail. As Laila is packing, a rocket hits their home, leaving Mammy and Babi dead and Laila gravely injured.
Rasheed pulls Laila from the rubble, and Mariam nurses Laila back to health. Laila receives a visit from a man named Abdul Sharif. The stranger tells Laila that he spent time in a hospital with Tariq before Tariq died. Laila is heartbroken, and believes Allah is punishing her for not grieving her brothers properly. Rasheed proposes to Laila, and Laila accepts because she is pregnant with Tariq’s child. Laila knows that she has no other choice. Rasheed and Laila are married. Soon, Laila tells Rasheed that she is having his child, and Rasheed once more prays for a son. Again, he is disappointed. Mariam sees how cruel Rasheed is to Laila and her infant daughter, Aziza. Mariam’s once hostile attitude toward Laila grows into fondness. Aziza and Mariam develop a special relationship.
Rasheed’s cruelty toward the women in his family is tolerated under the new Shari’a law, enforced by the new Taliban regime. Rasheed is now sure that Tariq is Aziza’s real father, and Rasheed uses this secret to keep Laila in line. Mariam and Laila attempt to take the children and leave Rasheed, but the women and children are caught. Under the Taliban, it is illegal for women to run away from the husbands. Rasheed beats Laila and Mariam for trying to leave, and he threatens them with worse if they try again.
Laila does eventually give Rasheed a son, Zalmai. Rasheed spoils his son, and he continues mistreating his wives and Aziza. Rasheed is foolish with his money. When he loses his job, Rasheed forces Laila to put Aziza in an orphanage. Though it is illegal for women to leave their homes without a male family member, Laila visits Aziza as often as she can. She must avoid the Taliban forces, who beat her when they catch her alone. One day, Laila receives a visitor of her own. Tariq is not dead. He has come to take Mariam with him back to Pakistan. Mariam realizes that Rasheed paid a friend to make up the story about Tariq’s death, in order to convince Laila to marry Rasheed.
Zalmai tells his father that Laila had a male visitor. Rasheed is furious, and Mariam sees that he will kill Laila. Mariam beats Rasheed with a shovel until he is dead. Mariam knows she will not live after committing this crime, and she sends Laila and the children away with Tariq. Mariam confesses to murdering her husband, and she is sentenced to death.
Laila and Tariq take the children to Pakistan, and the two are married. Aziza bonds quickly with her real father, knowing that Tariq will never hurt or leave her. Zalmai asks for Rasheed at first, but he soon learns to love Tariq too. Laila and Tariq watch from afar as the Taliban are driven out by allied forces, following the attack on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Laila convinces Tariq to return to Kabul. On their way home, Laila visits Mariam’s hometown to say goodbye to the woman who saved her life. While there, she meets the son of Mullah Faizullah. Laila learns that the tutor is dead, and so is Mariam’s father Jalil. Jalil had written Mariam a letter, asking for her forgiveness, and he had intended to give Mariam the money from his sold land.
Laila and Tariq use the money to renovate the orphanage, where Laila is now a teacher. Laila is pregnant with a third child. Kabul has been restored, and Laila wishes her parents were alive to see it.