The novel centers around the life of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi immigrant who marries an older man named Chanu Ahmed in an arranged marriage. She relocates to London to start her new married life with her husband. In London, Nazneen is exposed to a new culture, and struggles to find balance between new possibilities and old traditions. Nazneen also maintains contact with her outcast sister, Hasina, who ran away with a man in a love marriage. In her letters, Hasina describes her difficult life working in a factory, and then later as a prostitute.
As time passes, Nazneen becomes increasingly frustrated with Chanu and his lack of decisiveness. The couple has a son, but he dies as an infant. This loss draws the couple closer together, and Nazneen gives birth to two daughters, Shahana and Bibi. As his daughters grow older, Chanu becomes more and more worried about what their fate will be in a foreign country and becomes more determined than ever to return to Bangladesh. In order to get the money for this move, he takes work as a cab driver, allows Nazneen to work sewing clothes, and borrows money from wealthy Mrs. Islam.
Once Nazneen begins working, she meets Karim, who brings her sewing supplies from his uncle’s store. They end up having an affair, and Karim also opens Nazneen's eyes to growing injustice and racial tensions. However, Nazneen is haunted by guilt and ends up having a mental breakdown. After she recovers, Nazneen ends the relationship with Karim. With pressure mounting to pay back their debt, Nazneen becomes increasingly convinced that she cannot go back to Bangladesh. She plans to tell Chanu on the day that they are scheduled to leave.
On the day the family is supposed to leave for Bangladesh, racially motivated riots break out in their neighborhood. Nazneen is horrified when she learns that her daughter Shahana has run away and might be caught up in the violence. With Karim's help, she is able to find Shahana, and that night Nazneen tells Chanu that she and the children will be remaining in London.
In the months after Chanu's departure, Nazneen finds a newfound sense of independence and freedom as she works to provide for herself and her children. Meanwhile, Hasina finds a fresh start and the possibility of love with another man in Bangladesh. The novel ends with Nazneen going ice skating for the first time, symbolizing her dream of finally leading an independent life.