The book takes us inside the lives of people who was struggled to survive under the Shah of Iran's regime (probably not too much different than the current regime, except that Ahmadinejad has PR people who teach how to talk without saying anything at all). The story is about two young girls, best friends who are very much alike, until each makes a seemingly trivial, but fateful, decision: Shireen becomes politically active while Roya does everything possible to not to draw attention to herself. The girls grow up, and they grow apart by virtue of the different paths they pursue, and the reader gets to see the consequences of those decisions, not just upon the girls, but their extended families, as well.
It would be difficult for an American reader to imagine what it would be like to live under an oppressive regime in which it is risky to have, let alone express, an opinion. The Savak (secret police) are everywhere. Much as in Ceauşescu's Romania, one could not be sure who to trust. Friends and family are forced to denounce each other in order to save their own lives, while a relative handful of people assume all the risks, and suffer all the punishments, themselves.
The two primary characters, Roya and Shireen, represent a nation at odds with itself, wondering "whether to take arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing, end them" (Shakespeare), or remain silent and obedient, rationally focusing on their own and their families' lives than those of their countrymen.
In spite of the world it depicts, Sky of Red Poppies (as its optimistic-sounding title suggests) is not a dark book, nor does it have a political agenda. It focuses on the relationships between the girls. Even once they are separated by geography and the very different paths their lives take, Roya doesn't forget Shireen, and struggles to find out whether her friend is dead or alive.
The book opens a window into a world that people from the West never see, not just the lifestyle, but the very real people inhabiting it. They are no different than you or I, but by an accident of birth live under a totalitarian regime. But whether Zoe Gharahmeni writes about the reality of life under the Shah, or describes the friendship between the girls, her words are emotionally evocative, and beautiful.