Book Review: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

17 Jan

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: Book CoverRating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An epic novel that spans continents and generations, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, compassion and redemption, exile and home that unfolds across five decades in India, Ethiopia, and America.

Narrated by Marion Stone, the story begins even before Marion and his twin brother, Shiva, are born in Addis Ababa’s Missing Hospital (a mispronunciation of “Mission Hospital”), with the illicit, years-in-the-making romance between their parents, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful Indian nun, and Thomas Stone, a brash, brilliant British surgeon. Mary and Thomas meet on a boat out of Madras in 1947; she follows him to Ethiopia and to Missing, where they work side by side for seven years as nurse and doctor. After Mary dies while giving birth to the twins — a harrowing, traumatic scene on the operating table — Thomas vanishes, and Marion and Shiva grow up with only a dim sense of who he was, and with a deep hostility toward him for what they see as an act of betrayal and cowardice.

 The twins are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors who also work at Missing, and who shower Marion and Shiva with love and nurture their interest in medicine — part of the deep, almost preternatural connection the brothers share. They are so close that Marion, as a boy, thinks of them as a single entity: ShivaMarion.

 Marion and Shiva come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution, and their lives become intertwined with the nation’s politics. Addis Ababa is a colorful, cosmopolitan city: the Italians have left behind cappuccino machines, Campari umbrellas, and a vibrant expat community. But they’ve also left a nation crippled by poverty, hunger, and authoritarian rule: Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s is both bolstered and trapped by its notorious emperor, Haile Selassie, and rocked by violence and civil war.

 Yet it is not politics but love that tears the brothers apart: Shiva sleeps with Genet — the daughter of their housekeeper and the girl Marion has always loved. This second betrayal, now by the two people this sensitive young man loves most, sends Marion into a deep depression. And when Genet joins a radical political group fighting for the independence of Eritrea, Marion’s connection to her forces him into exile: he sneaks out of Ethiopia and makes his way to America.

 Marion interns at a hospital in the Bronx, an underfunded, chaotic place where the patients are nearly as poor and desperate as those he had seen at Missing. It is here that Marion comes to maturity as a doctor and as a man. It is here, too, that he meets his father and takes his first steps toward reconciling with him. But when the past catches up to Marion — nearly destroying him — he must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. The surprising, stunning denouement both arises from and reenacts the major themes of Cutting for Stone: love and betrayal, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and the inextricable union of life and death.

My Review

This book has been on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller list for 50 weeks. If you’ve read my take on this list and why I use it for book recommendations, you’ll understand why I was so looking forward to diving into this book.

I really liked the characters of this book – I saw them as flawed and deep and ‘true’ in many ways.  I liked the themes of compassion – for those we know, for those we don’t,  as doctors, parents, children.  I really enjoyed the different place and time – Africa in the 1970s – it is such a departure from what I know and understand.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this novel is ‘meandering’.  At first I was using that term negatively, because I really struggled with how slow it was in the beginning.  It wasn’t getting to anything!  I actually stopped reading it and polled my online reader friends – my exact question was, ” Cutting for Stone – Is this book going somewhere?  I’m on page 179 – should I stick with it?”  The response was “Yes, it’s worth it” and so I kept going.  And the book continued to meander, but what I realized by the end of this novel is that I knew the main character in a way I couldn’t have without truly walking with him through his life’s journey.  And that’s the point of the pacing I think – life is about roaming through the years and circumstances and experiences.  The saying “Life is about the journey, not the destination” completely applies to this novel.  It’s long (594 pages) and truly an epic, covering the main character’s 50 year life to date as well as portions of the lives of his closest friends and relatives.  I fell in love with the characters making the story more and more meaningful as it unfolded.  By the end, I was completely emotionally attached! 

I also got a great geography lesson out of this novel.  If you know me, you will know this is an extremely valuable side-benefit!  I now know most of Africa way better than ever.  Much of the novel takes place in Ethiopia, but there are portions that happen in various other countries in that region:  Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen. There is a portion in the United States as well.  I looked up the cities and countries being referenced and doing so enhanced my overall reading experience.  Also,  this explanation of the policital climate of Ethiopia during the time period of much of this novel helped me understand the tone of the country at the time. 

One word of caution – this book does have detailed descriptions of medical procedures – it’s a bit graphic at times. Medicine is a primary theme of this novel, as is the title itself.   “I will not cut for stone,” says an early version of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”  At the time this version was used, cutting a patient to get out a gallbladder stone was a very precarious operation and could only be performed by a skilled surgeon. 

Bottom Line:  When you’re ready to transport yourself and have the time and patience to depart, this novel will not disappoint on any front.  Don’t look for the explosions, or dramatic plot twists – make friends with the characters and share their life’s experiences – the setting and time period will seem fascinating and unknown, yet the human reaction will be familiar.

3 Responses to “Book Review: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese”

  1. Karen January 18, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    And thanks for the compliment!

  2. Karen January 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Julie – this one is actually available from the library, although you’re right – 5.00 isn’t much.

  3. Julie January 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Now I HAVE to read this one — I think it’s a $5.00 NookBook, so not much of an investment. Perhaps I should just buy it and file it away for a long, quiet weekend.

    Your reviews are always very interesting and I appreciate the perspective you share. Keep ’em coming! 🙂

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