A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two Afghan women married to the same abusive man, Rasheed. Mariam is Rasheed's first wife, an illegitimate daughter married off to the woodworker for money. When Mariam proves infertile, though, Rasheed marries the privileged and beautiful Laila who is, unbeknownst to him, already pregnant with her lover Tariq's child. Mariam and Laila clash initially, but after Rasheed's abuse scales out of control they align to escape him. Mariam murders their captor and is executed for the crime, freeing Laila.
When asked about common themes in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns , Khaled Hosseini replied:
"Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can be seen as a mother-daughter story."
He ultimately considers both novels to be "love stories" in that it is love that "draws characters out of their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice".
Hosseini visited Afghanistan in 2003, and "heard so many stories about what happened to women, the tragedies that they had endured, the difficulties, the gender-based violence that they had suffered, the discrimination, the being barred from active life during the Taliban, having their movement restricted, being banned essentially from practicing their legal, social rights, political rights". This motivated him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women.
Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley suggests that "the central theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is the place of women in Afghan society", pointing to a passage in which Mariam's mother states, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam."
In the book, both Mariam and Laila are forced into accepting a marriage to Rasheed, who requires them to wear a burqa before it is implemented by law under the Taliban. He later becomes increasingly abusive. A Riverhead Trades Weekly review states that the novel consistently shows the "patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status."