Laura Bush loved it. Isabel Allende loved it. Howard Stern loved it; so did The New York Times. Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel The Kite Runner arrived at the perfect post-9/11 moment, hooking readers curious about the suddenly notorious Islamic nation of Afghanistan, then reeling them in with a deeply affecting and sentimental melodrama of undying friendship, treachery, Taliban cruelty, and redemption. The novel affirmed the humanity of ordinary Afghans while decrying the barbarity of their erstwhile leaders, and became a top pick for book clubs across America. It has spent more than two years on the best-seller list and sold more than 4 million copies.
While Afghanistan has virtually disappeared from the headlines, Hosseini's follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, offers all the crowd-pleasing appeal of his debut, with some star-crossed lovers thrown in for good measure. The main action begins in the early 1970s, when 15-year-old Mariam, after her mother's suicide, is forced to marry Rasheed, a much older Kabul shoemaker. One of the most repulsive males in recent literature, Rasheed has ''watery bloodshot eyes'' and fingernails ''yellow brown, like the inside of a rotting apple.'' He's not just ugly on the outside: He keeps his nubile bride under a burka, essentially tethered to the grounds of their shabby house where, over the years, she gradually loses beauty, teeth, and her fighting spirit.
But through the turbulent 1980s and '90s, another would-be heroine is growing up down the street. Pretty Laila has a liberal, bookish father and a best friend named Tariq, who eventually becomes the focus of her sexual awakening, described in regrettably purple prose: ''When he was near, she couldn't help but be consumed with the most scandalous thoughts, of his lean, bare body entangled with hers...'' Tariq feels the same, but there is one force stronger than young love: history. Mujahideen rockets rain on Kabul; Tariq and his elderly parents flee to Pakistan; and through a hideous twist of fate, Laila ends up, at 14, as Rasheed's second wife. There's no joy in this grotesque union, but Laila's slow-growing friendship with Mariam sustains and transforms the women over the gruesome years that follow.
Hosseini's depiction of Mariam and Laila's plight would seem cartoonishly crude if it were not, by all accounts, a sadly accurate version of what many Afghan women have experienced. The romantic twists and fairy-tale turns are not so accurate. But, as in The Kite Runner, they are precisely what make the novel such a stirring read. Childhood promises are sacred; true love never dies; justice will be done; sisterhood is powerful. It's unrealistic, and almost impossible to resist. B+