The novel is broken into nine chapters, each told from the perspective of a different character. In the first chapter, told from the perspective of the Afghan laborer Saboor, Saboor tells his two children, Abdullah and Pari, a fairy tale before they go to sleep. In the fairy tale, a farmer named Baba Ayub is forced to sacrifice his favorite son, Qais, to an evil spirit called the div. Ayub, furious with himself for giving up his own child, decides to hunt down the div. Eventually, he traces the div to a beautiful palace, in which he finds Qais playing happily with his friends. The div explains to Baba Ayub that it has provided Qais with a wonderful home and a good education. It gives Ayub two options: take Qais home, or allow him to stay. Reluctantly, Baba Ayub decides to let Qais stay. Before Ayub leaves, the div, sympathetic to Ayub’s guilt, gives him a bottle of liquid that makes him forget that he ever had a son named Qais. Now an old man, Ayub returns to his home. Although he’s forgotten about Qais almost entirely, he sometimes hears the sounds of his son—sounds that he has no way of understanding anymore.
The second chapter is set in the late 1940s and told from the perspective of Saboor’s young son, Abdullah. Abdullah and his sister, Pari, travel with Saboor to the city of Kabul. Saboor has told his children that he’s been summoned to do construction work on a mansion in the city, where his brother-in-law, Nabi, has been working as a servant. It takes Saboor, Pari, and Abdullah almost an entire day to travel to Kabul from their tiny village, Shadbagh. When they arrive, Nabi leads them to the mansion where he lives and works. Nabi introduces his family to Mr. Suleiman Wahdati and Mrs. Nila Wahdati, the owners of the mansion. During their visit, Mrs. Wahdati separates Abdullah and Pari, and then tells Abdullah that “it’s for the best.” It becomes clear that the Wahdatis have adopted Pari as their own child—and it seems that Abdullah, now returned to Shadbagh along with his father, will never see his beloved sister again. Nevertheless, Abdullah continues to love Pari more than anyone else. One day, he finds a small yellow feather, of the kind that Pari was once fond of collecting. Instead of throwing the feather away, he keeps it for himself, vowing to give it to Pari himself one day.
The third chapter is told from the perspective of Parwana, Saboor’s second wife, and Abdullah and Pari’s stepmother. Parwana—as the chapter begins, a single woman, not yet married to Saboor—takes care of her beautiful twin sister, Masooma, who has recently had a horrible accident, and can no longer walk. While they were growing up, Parwana and Masooma were competitive with one another, and Parwana in particular resented Masooma for being prettier and more popular than she. Parwana developed a crush on Saboor, then a young, handsome man. Because Parwana was shy and cautious, Masooma was able to “swoop in” and claim Saboor for herself. Masooma and Saboor became a serious couple, and a few years later, they announced their engagement. Parwana was so jealous that she caused Masooma to fall from a tall tree, causing the injury that left her a paraplegic. For the next few years, Parwana, overcome with guilt, took care of Masooma at all times. Meanwhile, Saboor married another woman, who died while giving birth to Pari. As the chapter comes “full circle,” Parwana learns that Saboor is interested in remarrying, and wants to court her. Masooma, who senses that Parwana and Saboor may become a couple, tells Parwana to leave her. At first, Parwana is reluctant to abandon her sister. Eventually, however, she decides to marry Saboor. She leaves Masooma, and never sees her again.
The fourth chapter consists of a letter, written by Nabi, the brother of Masooma and Parwana. Nabi, an old man as the chapter begins, describes his career working for the Wahdati family. As a young man, Nabi works as a cook and chauffeur for Mr. Suleiman Wahdati, a quiet, shy man. Shortly after he begins his job, Mr. Wahdati marries Mrs. Nila Wahdati, a beautiful, mysterious woman with whom Nabi is fascinated. As the years go on, Nabi becomes increasingly close with Nila, and is ultimately the one to suggest that Nila and Suleiman adopt Pari as their own child. While Saboor agrees, he comes to hate Nabi for his role in breaking up Saboor’s family.
As Pari grows up in the 60s and 70s, she loses all memory of Saboor and Abdullah, and comes to think of Nabi as her servant, rather than her uncle. Nila, meanwhile, becomes more alienated from her husband. While Pari is still young, Nila leaves her husband and takes Pari to live in Paris, never to return. Mr. Wahdati suffers a stroke that leaves him incapable of walking, and as a result, Nabi spends more and more time taking care of his employer, eventually becoming his only companion. Nabi and Wahdati grow old together. One day, when they’re both elderly, Wahdati reveals that he’s always been in love with Nabi. Nabi isn’t sure how to respond, but he continues to work as Wahdati’s loyal servant. In the early 2000s, Wahdati dies, leaving all his property to Nabi. Around this time, the Taliban invade Kabul, throwing the city into chaos. Nabi invites a group of European doctors and surgeons to stay in his home for free. One of these, Dr. Markos Varvaris, is the recipient of Nabi’s letter from the fourth chapter. In closing, Nabi tells Markos that he must track down Pari and tell her that she has a brother named Abdullah.
In Chapter Five, two cousins, Timur Bashiri and Idris Bashiri, arrive in Afghanistan from the United States in the mid-2000s. Timur is a loud, arrogant used car dealer, while Idris is a shy, reserved doctor who resents Timur greatly. They’ve come to investigate what became of their family’s property in Kabul. During their stay in the city, they make the acquaintance of a Bosnian doctor, Dr. Amra Ademovic. Amra befriends Idris, and introduces him to a beautiful young girl named Roshana, who was nearly murdered by the Taliban. Idris is so moved by Roshana that he promises to find a way to pay for the surgeries she needs to make a full recovery. Back in the United States, Idris immediately finds himself engulfed with responsibilities at his hospital and home, and can’t find the time to research Roshana’s operation. Eventually he forgets about the entire situation.
Years later, Roshana has made a full recovery, thanks to the generosity of Idris’s cousin, Timur. Roshana, now a young woman, has written a book about her life. The book is dedicated to Timur and Amra. Idris—terrified that Roshana has written about his negligence and callousness—goes to a book signing event for Roshana’s book. When it’s his turn to have his book signed, Roshana barely acknowledges him. In his copy, she writes, “Don’t worry. You’re not in it.”
Chapter Six concerns Pari’s relationship with Nila Wahdati, the woman she’s come to think of as her mother. At the chapter begins, Nila—now a middle-aged woman—has a poor relationship with her adopted daughter. She’s been a neglectful parent, despite building up a successful career as a poet. When Pari was a young teenager, Nila began seeing a man named Julien, for whom Pari had feelings, too. Julien and Nila’s relationship lasted only a few months. Several years later, while Pari was studying mathematics at the Sorbonne, she encountered Julien once again, and they began an affair of their own. When Pari worked up the courage to tell Nila about the affair, Nila laughed and told Pari that they were no longer mother and daughter.
The chapter is intercut with portions of an interview that Nila gives for a poetry magazine. In the interview, Nila explains that she never had a romantic relationship with Mr. Wahdati, since he was “in love with the chauffeur.” She also talks about her father, a cruel man who often beat her. Shortly after giving the interview, Nila kills herself by slitting her wrists.
Pari is devastated by her mother’s suicide, and feels guilty for not spending more time with her. Nevertheless, she proceeds with her studies of mathematics, and eventually earns a Ph.D. As a young woman, she marries a man named Eric Lacombe, with whom she has three children. As she grows older, Pari comes to feel a stronger connection with Nila than she ever did when Nila was alive: she recognizes how difficult it can be to be a parent. Years later, when Pari is an elderly woman and barely able to walk, she receives a call from Marko Varvaris, who tells her that she has a brother named Abdullah. As she processes this news, she feels a strange sense of connection with her sibling—a sense that she’s forgotten about for decades.
The seventh chapter concerns a boy named Adel who lives in Shadbagh in 2009. His father, Commander Sahib, is a powerful military leader, whom Adel loves and worships. One day, while his father is out of the city, Adel meets a boy named Gholam. Gholam develops a friendship with Adel, and they spend the afternoons playing soccer together. One day, Gholam reveals that he’s the son of Iqbal—Saboor and Parwana’s child. Gholam and Iqbal had been forced to live on a refugee camp in Pakistan following the invasion of the Taliban in the early 2000s. Now Gholam and Iqbal have returned to Afghanistan, only to find that their land has been stolen by Adel’s father. At first, Adel refuses to believe that Gholam is telling the truth. Several days later, however, he’s sitting with his father in their house when an old man—Iqbal—throws a rock through a window. Commander Sahib orders Adel to go upstairs while he “deals with” the man. Adel wonders what will become of the man, and imagines that he might even be shot. The next day, Adel sees a story in the newspaper about how Commander Sahib survived an “assassination attempt.” As he reads the story—which never says what became of the old man—Adel senses that he’ll never again be able to love or trust his father.
In Chapter Eight, narrated by Markos Varvaris, we see Markos at many points in his life, beginning with his childhood on the Greek island of Tinos. Markos has a conflicted relationship with his stern mother, Odelia, who takes good care of him but doesn’t show him any affection. One day, Odelia announces that she’ll be hosting a visit from her old friend, Madaline, and Madaline’s daughter, Thalia. When Markos meets Thalia, he notices that she has a hideous wound on her face—a wound which came from a dog bite, and which has taken away most of her lower jaw. As time goes on, Markos strikes up a friendship with Thalia. He learns that she’s intelligent and quick-witted. She also encourages him to take up photography as a hobby. Eventually, Madaline abandons Thalia, leaving her to live with Odelia and Markos—Madaline has selfishly accepted work as an actress in a film, and no longer has any interest in her daughter.
The chapter cuts ahead to Markos’s early adulthood. He travels the world, using money that Thalia has inherited from her father, who’s recently passed away. Markos photographs buildings and natural landmarks across the world, keeping up his close friendship with Thalia the entire time. He decides to become a doctor after nearly dying in an Indian hospital and being unable to save a young boy. Although he goes on to become a plastic surgeon, and often offers Thalia the chance to repair her face, Thalia always refuses.
One day, when Markos is a middle-aged man and Odelia is old and suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he goes to visit her in Tinos. She tells him that she’s proud of him. Markos is overjoyed to hear these words—he’s been waiting for decades to hear his mother say them to him. Nevertheless, he’s saddened that he and his mother have always felt alienated from one another, and he wishes they could have been closer.
In the final chapter of the book, Abdullah’s daughter, Pari II, explains how her father reunited with Pari, her aunt and namesake. Pari II is a good, devoted daughter who’s given up art school to take care of her mother, who dies of cancer, and later her ailing father, who’s beginning to suffer from dementia. Pari II receives a call from Pari, and arranges for Pari to come to California, where Abdullah has settled. When Pari and Abdullah reunite, Abdullah is at first skeptical that Pari is who she claims to be. He realizes the truth when Pari sings him the song Abdullah used to sing her when they were both children. This happy reunion doesn’t last long, however, as Abdullah begins to lose his memory. One day he screams at Pari, accusing her of being a thief and a liar.
Pari II and Pari decide to take a trip to Paris together. While Pari II is packing, she comes across a small box that belongs to her father. Inside, she finds the yellow feather he kept decades ago. Next to the feather, she finds a note, dated shortly after Abdullah learned he was losing his memory, explaining that he’s spent his entire life waiting to see Pari again. In Paris, Pari II has a vivid dream in which Abdullah and Pari reunite as children, and embrace tenderly.