Part one describes the life of Mariam, a young girl living in Herat, Afghanistan. Mariam’s birth was unplanned and the result of the affair between a wealthy man, Jalil, and his former housekeeper, Mariam’s mother, whom she refers to as Nana. Mariam's and Nana live in a simple "kolba," while Jalil lives in an extravagant mansion with his multiple wives and children. The conflict in opinion between Mariam’s parents seems to be a great stress in her life, especially regarding Nana's bitterness towards Jalil. Nana is dependent, manipulative and shallow, and convinces her daughter that the power of men will dictate her life unfavourably. However, Mariam worships her father, and excitedly anticipates his brief visits to the "kolba". On Mariam’s fifteenth birthday, she asks her father to take her to see the movie Pinocchio along with his other children. To Nana's resentment, Mariam insists she we will wait for him the next day. The decision to visit Jalil rather than comply with her mother's pleads greatly offends Nana. When Jalil fails to arrive, Mariam sleeps outside all night waiting for him. When Mariam heads home the next day, she discovers that her troubled mother was driven to suicide. Upon her mother’s death, Mariam is then rejected by Jalil and his three wives as they refuse to take her in, and she is arranged with a suitor, Rasheed, who is nearly twice her young age of fifteen. Mariam's new life becomes progressively more demanding and abusive, as she begins to fear Rasheed. Years later, Mariam’s brief happiness is shattered with the loss of the baby she conceives with Rasheed.
The story takes a dramatic shift, in which it fast-forwards nine years ahead to the perspective of Laila, Mariam’s neighbor who was mentioned briefly in the previous section. The Soviets have invaded and now occupy the country. Meanwhile, a civil war between the Soviets and Muslim nationalist rebels continues. Laila lives in Kabul with her parents, Mammy and Babi. Laila’s assertive personality shines throughout her childhood, as she has a strong opinion and quick wit that is admired among her family and friends. However, Laila fails to impress her mother due to the fact that Mammy consumes all her time and emotion over Ahmad and Noor, her two sons who have gone to war against the Soviets. When the family receives the news that Ahmad and Noor have died, Mammy becomes ultimately depressed, and overwhelmed with self-destructive behavior. Mammy does not lighten up until the Soviet convoys exit the city. Throughout her childhood, Laila spends much time with her friend Tariq, a Pashtun boy who lost his leg in a landmine at a young age. Laila begins to develop feelings for Tariq first when they go to watch a Soviet film together. Years later, the Najibulah surrender, as Mammy’s dream comes true. Mammy throws a victory party, the event in which Tariq and Laila begin to further advance in their developing relationship. Upon a new election of the leader, Rabbani, a battle breaks out, and rockets begin to rain down on Kabul. Babi has Laila drop out of school because everything in Kabul becomes too unsafe. Tariq and his family leave for Pakistan, and before his departure, Laila and Tariq make love for the first time. Babi suggests that his family also leave Kabul until the war settles down. Just as the family is packing up and preparing to leave, a rocket hits their house, killing Mammy and Babi, and orphaning Laila.
This section in the novel is the point in which the two main character’s stories converge. As Laila is now orphaned, her neighbors Mariam and Rasheed have taken her in. A man named Abdul Sharif stops by at the house and tells Laila that Tariq has died. Shortly after the devastating news, Rasheed proposes to make Laila his second wife. Laila surprisingly agrees, as it turns out she is pregnant with Tariq’s child and is certain it would not survive on the streets of Kabul. Laila tricks Rasheed into believing he had conceived a child with her. Mariam and Laila initially detest one another, and frequently bicker when Rasheed is away. Laila gives birth to a girl, and Rasheed is upset with Laila's failure to provide him with a son. Rasheed accuses Mariam of “corrupting” Laila, and resolves to beat her. At this point, Laila lunges on Rasheed to protect Mariam. This brave and caring gesture results in a bond that forms between the two women. Laila has been stealing money from Rasheed in hopes to run away in the summer, and she suggests that Mariam joins her and her daughter, Aziza. In the spring, Mariam, Laila and Aziza successfully escape from the house. However, they get caught and are sent back home to a livid Rasheed, who brutally beats both Laila and Mariam and locks them up for days. Years later, the Taliban have taken over in which they have imposed society with a set of forbidden rules, importantly ones that suppress the rights and freedoms of women. Laila becomes pregnant with Rasheed’s child and contemplates abortion, but she decides against it. Laila gives birth to Zalmai through a cesarean section without an anesthetic. Rasheed is very happy that Laila gave birth to a son, and favors him above all the female members of his family. When a fire destroys Rasheed’s shoe-making store and he is out of work, Rasheed sells many of the family's belongings. Rasheed lets Laila know he is on to her regarding the fact that Aziza’s true father is Tariq, and uses it to his advantage. To Laila’s extreme disapproval, Aziza is temporarily sent to an orphanage. Laila visits Aziza frequently, and upon her return home one day she is surprised to see Tariq standing outside her door. Laila learns that Rasheed had arranged Abdul Sharif to tell Laila the lie regarding Tariq’s death. Tariq and Laila continue to meet, making Rasheed suspicious and jealous in which he tries to beat Laila very brutally. Laila fights back, and this time Rasheed has intentions of killing her. Mariam defends Laila and kills Rasheed with a shovel. Mariam convinces Laila to leave to spare her of the consequences, and Mariam is executed as a result of her crime.