Lipstick in Afghanistan

Lipstick in Afghanistan

Roberta Gately’s lyrical and authentic debut novel—inspired by her own experiences as a nurse in third world war zones—is one woman’s moving story of offering help and finding hope in the last place she expected.

Gripped by haunting magazine images of starving refugees, Elsa has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a teenager. Of leaving her humble working-class Boston neighborhood to help people whose lives are far more difficult than her own. No one in her family has ever escaped poverty, but Elsa has a secret weapon: a tube of lipstick she found in her older sister’s bureau. Wearing it never fails to raise her spirits and cement her determination. With lipstick on, she can do anything—even travel alone to war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

But violent nights as an ER nurse in South Boston could not prepare Elsa for the devastation she witnesses at the small medical clinic she runs in Bamiyan. As she struggles to prove herself to the Afghan doctors and local villagers, she begins a forbidden romance with her only confidant, a charming Special Forces soldier. Then, a tube of lipstick she finds in the aftermath of a tragic bus bombing leads her to another life-changing friendship. In her neighbor Parween, Elsa finds a kindred spirit, fiery and generous. Together, the two women risk their lives to save friends and family from the worst excesses of the Taliban. But when the war waging around them threatens their own survival, Elsa discovers her only hope is to unveil the warrior within. Roberta Gately’s raw, intimate novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of friendship and a poignant reminder of the tragic cost of war.
  • Gallery Books | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439191385 | 
  • November 2010
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Lipstick in Afghanistan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Roberta Gately. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Elsa Murphy is a serious, sweet Boston girl whose tough childhood made her want nothing more than to truly help people. After working tirelessly to finish nursing school and sweating through long hours in the ER, she decides to volunteer with Aide du Monde, a world relief organization. Elsa feels it’s the best way to put her nursing skills to use, and she secretly longs to leave Boston and add some color to her life. But she has no idea what to expect when she is posted to a rural clinic in Afghanistan, just after 9/11.

From the moment she sets foot in Bamiyan, Elsa knows her life will forever be changed by what she sees and who she befriends. There’s spirited Parween, a young mother who’s been forced to silently accept the horrors the Taliban inflicted on her family and friends, but who longs to throw off her veil and fight back. And there’s Mike, a handsome engineer in the U.S. Special Forces who teaches Elsa what it truly means to love. But when an innocent venture to a nearby town put see more

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About the Author

Roberta Gately
Photograph by Miller Studios

Roberta Gately

A nurse, humanitarian aid worker, and writer, Roberta Gately has served in war zones ranging from Africa to Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for the Journal of Emergency Nursing, as well as a series of articles for the BBC Worlds News Online. She speaks regularly on the plight of the world’s refugees and displaced.