The novel is divided into four parts. The first part focuses exclusively on Mariam, the second and fourth parts focus on Laila, and the third part switches focus between Mariam and Laila with each chapter.
Mariam lives in a house with her mother. Jalil, her father, is a wealthy man who lives in town with three wives and several children. Because Mariam is his illegitimate daughter, she cannot live with them, but Jalil visits her every Thursday. On her fifteenth birthday, Mariam wants her father to take her to see Pinocchio at the movie theater. When he does not show up, she hikes into town and goes to his house. He refuses to see her, and she ends up sleeping on the porch. In the morning, Mariam returns home to find that her mother has hanged herself out of fear that her daughter has deserted her.
Mariam is then taken to live in her father's house. Jalil arranges for her to be married to Rasheed, a shoemaker from Kabul. In Kabul, Mariam quickly becomes pregnant, but the child miscarries, and Rasheed becomes abusive towards his young bride.
In the same neighborhood live a girl named Laila and a boy named Tariq, who are close friends, but careful of social boundaries. War comes to Afghanistan, and Kabul is bombarded by rocket attacks. Tariq's family decides to leave the city, and the emotional farewell between Laila and Tariq ends with them having sex. Laila's family also decides to leave Kabul, but as they are packing a rocket destroys the house and kills her parents. Laila is taken in by Rasheed and Mariam.
After recovering from her injuries, Laila discovers that she is pregnant with Tariq's child. She arranges to marry Rasheed, who is eager to have a young and attractive second wife. Laila, who has been told that Tariq is dead, gives birth to Aziza, a daughter. Rasheed is unhappy and suspicious, and he becomes more abusive. Mariam and Laila eventually become confidants. They plan to run away from Rasheed and leave Kabul, but they are caught at the bus station. Rasheed beats them and deprives them of water for several days, almost killing Aziza. Just because they were travelling without 'mahram'.
A few years later, Laila gives birth to Zalmai, Rasheed's son. The Taliban has risen to power, and there is a drought, and living conditions in Kabul become poor. Rasheed's workshop burns down, and he is forced to take jobs he is ill-suited for. The family sends Aziza to an orphanage. Then one day, Tariq appears outside the house. He and Laila are reunited, and their passions flare anew. When Rasheed returns home from work, Zalmai tells his father about the visitor. Rasheed starts to savagely beat Laila, so Mariam kills Rasheed with a shovel.
Laila and Tariq leave for Pakistan with the children. Mariam confesses to killing her husband and is executed. After the fall of the Taliban, Laila and Tariq return to Afghanistan. They stop in the village where Mariam was raised, and discover a package that Mariam's father left behind for her (trough Mullah Faizullah's son): a videotape of Pinocchio, a small pile of money and a letter. Laila reads the letter and discovers that Jalil regretted sending Mariam away. Laila and Tariq return to Kabul and fix up the orphanage, where Laila works as a teacher.
Huhu (a sad sound), a letter wrote by Jalil to Mariam is very touchy. A letter from father to daughter!