The book is a memoir of the experience of the author who returned to Iran during the revolution (1978-1981) and lived and taught in the Islamic Republic of Iran until her departure in 1997. It narrates her teaching at the University of Tehran after 1979, her refusal to submit to the rule to wear the veil and her subsequent expulsion from the university, life during the Iran-Iraq war, her return to teaching at the University of Allameh Tabatabei (1981), her resignation (1987), the formation of her book club (1995–97), and her decision to emigrate. Events are interlaced with the stories of book club members consisting of seven of her female students, who met weekly at Nafisi's house to discuss works of Western literature including the controversial Lolita and the texts are interpreted through the books they read.
The book is divided into four sections: "Lolita", "Gatsby", "James", and "Austen".
"Lolita" deals with Nafisi as she resigns from The University of Allameh Tabatabei and starts her private literature class with students Mahshid, Yassi, Mitra, Nassrin, Azin, Sanaz and Manna. They talk not just about Lolita, but One Thousand and One Nights and Invitation to a Beheading. The main themes are oppression, jailers as revolutionary guards try to assert their authority through certain events such as a vacation gone awry and a runaway convict.
"Gatsby" is set about eleven years before "Lolita" just as the Iranian revolution starts. The reader learns how some Iranians' dreams, including the author's, became shattered through the government's imposition of new rules. Nafisi's student Mr. Nyazi puts the novel on trial, claiming that it condones adultery. Chronologically this is the first part of Nafisi's story. The Great Gatsby and Mike Gold's works are discussed in this part. The reader meets Nassrin.
Nafisi states that the Gatsby chapter is about the American dream, the Iranian dream of revolution and the way it was shattered for her; the James chapter is about uncertainty and the way totalitarian mindsets hate uncertainty; and Austen is about the choice of women, a woman at the center of the novel saying no to the authority of her parents, society, and welcoming a life of dire poverty in order to make her own choice.
"James" takes place right after "Gatsby", when the Iran–Iraq War begins and Nafisi is expelled from the University of Tehran along with a few other professors. The veil becomes mandatory and she states that the government wants to control the liberal-minded professors. Nafisi meets the man she calls her "magician", seemingly a literary academician who had retired from public life at the time of the revolution. Daisy Miller and Washington Square are the main texts. Nassrin reappears after spending several years in prison.
"Austen" succeeds "Lolita" as Nafisi plans to leave Iran and the girls discuss the issue of marriages, men and sex. The only real flashback (not counting historical background) is into how the girls and Nafisi toyed with the idea of creating a Dear Jane society. While Azin deals with an abusive husband and Nassrin plans to leave for England, Nafisi's magician reminds her not to blame all of her problems on the Islamic Republic. Pride and Prejudice, while the main focus, is used more to reinforce themes about blindness and empathy.
Throughout the whole novel Nafisi tackles the question of what is a hero and a villain in literature. Each independent section of the book examines notions of heroism and villainy by connecting characters from books such as Invitation to a Beheading or The Great Gatsby to others. The basis of her definition of heroism and villainy is the connection between characters who are "blind to other's problems"  such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and characters who can empathize. This theme is intertwined with that of oppression and blindness.