A Thousand Splendid Suns is credited for its ability to provoke emotion in its reader—my dad, who is the least sentimental person I know, called this book “impossibly touching.” Mariam, a harami, or bastard in Afghan culture, is married off to Rasheed when she is 15 years old, and must learn to cook and clean while simultaneously remaining invisible. Later Laila, due to a series of unfortunate events, becomes Rasheed’s second wife, and though there is initially animosity between the two women, they form a friendship out of the wretchedness of their circumstances. Set in war-ravaged Afghanistan, this novel documents both Mariam and Laila coming of age and surviving in the most dire of places. The following novels document their protagonists going on a journey, both literally and metaphorically, as they deal with life’s curve balls just as Mariam and Laila do.
1. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini writes novels that are both profound and cripplingly unfair. If you were moved by Mariam and Laila’s friendship and their devotion to one another, then The Kite Runner is a great follow up read. Amir and Hassan have been best friends since they were boys. It doesn’t matter that Amir is the son of a rich merchant and Hassan the son of a servant; such things are meaningless to children when they fill their days running with kites. But when Amir witnesses a terrible act, both the boys’ lives change, and their differences never appear so stark. The Kite Runner resembles A Thousand Splendid Suns for its themes of friendship and desperation, and both examine the political landscape set in Afghanistan during the latter half of the twentieth century. Once finishing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I had to read more from Hosseini, and The Kite Runner was just as intuitive and devastating.
2. The Choice, by Edith Eger
No book has affected me quite the way The Choice has. Edith Eger was only 17 when she and her sister were separated from their parents and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. She remained there until the end of the war, and The Choice is about the life she tries to lead after the atrocities she endured. While Edith marries and makes the move to America, she is haunted by her trauma, unable to move past what happened to her and what she lost as a result of the war. This non-fiction book portrays the same human resilience seen in A Thousand Splendid Suns. That The Choice is based on true events only makes it that much more emotionally poignant, and I urge everyone to read it.
3. Educated, by Tara Westover
Educated is based on Tara Westover’s life. Her family are survivalists, constantly anticipating the end of the world and stockpiling food. They are distrustful of the government, so Tara and her siblings are forbidden from attending school. As Tara grows, she begins to educate herself in the hopes of escaping the life of squalor and abuse she’s been forced to live in. When she enters a classroom for the first time at the age of 17, her life is transformed. This memoir is reminiscent of A Thousand Splendid Suns in the sense that Tara is born into a family who has certain ideals, and she has no choice but to conform to them, just like Mariam and Laila. She knows she wants to break free of these constraints, but the journey is lonely and difficult. Still, her resilience stands strong to the odds against her, and this novel is both uplifting and inspiring.
4. Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Kya is abandoned by her family one by one, first by her mother, then her brothers, and finally her alcoholic abusive father. She is only a child when she finds herself alone in her shack by the marsh, fearful of where she’ll be placed if social services find her. She decides to live alone, relying solely on herself for food and shelter. She sells shells and fish in town to survive, and in time becomes completely self-sufficient and content living this life of solitude. When she meets Tate, a young boy who helps her one day when she’s lost in the marsh, Kya decides she may just need a friend. Kya has no one to rely on but herself, and this is largely true of Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns, who may be married to Rasheed, but finds no joy in this companionship. Tate entering Kya’s life changes things for the marsh girl, just as Laila entering Mariam’s does.
5. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Esther Greenwood moves from Boston to New York for an internship with a respectable magazine, but unlike her fellow colleagues, finds herself indifferent to the glamour of the big city. Esther and her work companions are put up in a nice hotel and their sponsors take them out for fancy meals with lots of alcohol. Though Esther knows she should be loving her newfound freedom, she cannot bring herself to enjoy any of it. As the novel continues, Esther’s mental health deteriorates in a way that mirrors Plath’s own. Plath committed suicide only one month after The Bell Jar’s publication in 1963. The Bell Jar reminds me of A Thousand Splendid Suns because, even though Mariam’s circumstances are far more dire, Esther is forcibly moved somewhere and expected to be okay with it with little regard for her mental health, just as Mariam is. Both women are expected to hide their feelings and conform to societal expectations, yet neither of them can.
6. Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys
Anna Morgan is forced out of her home in the West Indies to London after her father dies. She is unaccustomed to the cold weather and the mannerisms of British people, and struggles to fit in. She begins an affair with a man named Walter, who she both detests and loves in equal measure, and who she relies on for money as her step-mother cuts her off from her inheritance. People consistently take advantage of Anna as she struggles to navigate through her new life, not to much avail. Like Mariam, Anna is ripped away from what she knows due to a family tragedy and forced to live in a way she doesn’t fully understand or enjoy. Voyage in the Dark is a story about survival, even when there appears to be no joy in that survival.
7. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is one of the most famous novels in the English language, and there are similarities between Jane’s story and Laila’s. Jane escapes her home to become a teacher at Thornfield, tutoring a young girl and boarding as payment. There she meets Mr. Rochester, who at first stays away from her, but the pair eventually discovers they are inseparable. But by the most unfortunate of circumstances, they are unable to wed. Like Laila is separated from her love Tariq in A Thousand Splendid Suns, Jane finds herself in a position where she cannot be with the man she loves. Their situations appear to be impossible, and suddenly the only joy in both Jane’s and Laila’s lives is torn away.
8. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea is an interesting novel because it is Jane Eyre reimagined; it acts as something of a prequel for the 1847 novel by Bronte. Where the original tale focuses on Jane and Mr. Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea focuses on the woman in the attic, Antoinette, and her relationship with a young Edward Rochester. Antoinette, a Creole heiress, is forced into an arranged marriage with Edward and suffers from a breakdown, which eventually leads her to the position we find her in in Jane Eyre. This novel reminds me of A Thousand Splendid Suns because it portrays an arranged marriage that causes misery for all parties.
9. Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska
Sara Smolinsky lives with her rabbi father, her mother, and two sisters. The women do all the work while their father spends his time praying, unable to help with the income. As her sisters are married off to men who will enable their father to continue his life of idleness, Sara rebels against this idea and decides to move out and get an education. Sara is able to make the choice that Mariam is not, escaping the rule of her religion and finding a life for herself beyond the confines of what she is told she can and cannot do. Sara’s path is not portrayed as an easy one, and often she wonders if she has made the right decision, but she achieves a certain level of freedom she never could have had if she had remained under her father’s thumb. Bread Givers is like A Thousand Splendid Suns in the sense that both main characters’ fathers hope to marry them off, although for very different reasons.