Last week I finally decided to read the book; while my expectations were fulfilled, I was moved by Hosseini's story of two Afghan women. In the first section of the book, we meet Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman and one of his servants. She and her mother live in a small isolated house, where her mother keeps up a steady commentary on the horrible future Mariam is destined to face and Mariam lives in anticipation of her father's weekly visit. The next phase of her life is even worse, as she is married off as a teenager to a shoemaker 30 years her senior. After she suffers numerous miscarriages, she essentially resigns herself to life as her husband's punching bag.
At this point, Hosseini changes perspective, telling the second part of the book through the perspective of Laila, a teenager who lives down the street from Mariam. After the Communist takeover, Laila's father lost his job as a teacher. Her mother, once a spark plug of a woman, has been severely depressed since her sons went to fight with the Mujahideen. Laila finds solace at school, with her girlfriends, and with Tariq, who transitions from being a friend to a lover.
In part three of the book, Hosseini brings Mariam and Laila together in a development that surprised me (so I won't detail it here and ruin the surprise for others), and the two become close. Though both suffer heartbreaking physical and psychological violence, their friendship helps them to persevere. Part four brings a happy ending for one of the characters, though I wonder whether Hosseini's optimism might have faltered had he written the book a year or two later, as the Taliban were reemerging in Afghanistan.
While the ending was a bit pat, the bulk of the book is a moving tribute to the strength and resilience of Afghan women. The story--and the Afghan history that Hosseini clearly wants readers to understand--would provide ample material for book groups to discuss.
Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.
"You'll get used to it," Rasheed said. "With time, I bet you'll even like it."
In the coming days and months, Laila would scramble frantically to commit it all to memory, what happened next. Like an art lover running out of a burning museum, she would grab whatever she could--a look, a whisper, a moan--to salvage from perishing, to preserve. But time is the most unforgiving of fire, and she couldn't, in the end, save it all.