Mariam, one of two female protagonists, is a quiet, thoughtful child at the start of the book. Born out of wedlock to a rich and married businessman (Jalil) and his former housekeeper (Nana), Mariam resents her mother's strict ways and the fact that she only sees her father once a week. Mariam's shame at being illegitimate makes her unable to stand up for herself. When her mother commits suicide after Mariam runs away at age 15, Mariam is plagued by guilt that controls her for much of her life, which contributes to her tolerance at being married to the abusive Rasheed. During her long marriage to Rasheed, Mariam's inability to have children turns her into a resentful, bitter, and fearful woman. This helps her understand her own mother better, and Mariam's life changes with the arrival of Laila, Rasheed's second wife. Through her love for Laila and Laila's children, Mariam is able to fulfill her wish to be a mother and to finally give and receive love.