Laila, who has throughout her childhood loved a neighbor boy, Tariq, becomes his lover just before he and his family flee Afghanistan. Soon after, as she and her own parents prepare to leave, a bomb strikes their house and she is orphaned. Rasheed digs her out of the rubble and takes her in. Within weeks, Laila, who is led to believe Tariq is dead, becomes Rasheed's second wife. And she discovers that she is pregnant.
Over time, as Laila gives birth to a daughter and then a son, she and Mariam bond through housekeeping, child rearing and submitting to Rasheed's sadistic domination. His abuse is so damaging that the two women plan to escape.
A harrowing journey follows, and they end up in jail with horrific repercussions, a sign of the Taliban's power to enforce fundamentalist tradition.
What keep this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini's eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of human emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a woman discovers she is carrying a baby.
The final scenes of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" dramatize the heartbreaking power of the bond between Rasheed's two wives, and the Taliban's savage punishment of Mariam, in ways unimaginable in the Western world, for her attempts to protect Laila, making Hosseini's illuminating book a worthy sequel to "The Kite Runner."
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire," is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to the board's blog, Critical Mass.