Wednesday, March 18, 2009

a review of Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 978-0-375-41449-7)

Cutting for Stone is an epic tale, spanning decades from the 1950's to the present, spanning the continents from India to Africa to America and with a large cast of engaging characters.
Generally, the book can be divided into three main sections. In the first, we meet Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a young nun traveling from her home in India to her new assignment at a mission in Africa and we meet a fellow traveler on the ship, a surgeon, Dr. Thomas Stone. Several near death experiences conspire to throw the two together and they both end up in the small Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Seven years later, that section comes to it's climax and it's conclusion when Sister Mary is found, to everyone's surprise, to be in labor, delivering twin boys conjoined by a small strip of flesh at the head. It is a very difficult and unprepared for birth and the poor Sister dies in childbirth, while the boys are saved by a last minute cesarean. The presumed father, Dr. Stone, claims to have no knowledge of how she became pregnant, but flees the scene, never to contact his friends and colleagues at Missing again. He leaves the babies, his sons, in the care of two Indian doctors at the hospital, who then raise the boys as their own . But he is by no way out of the story because, as the oldest of the two twin will say later in the book, “The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.” and Dr. Stone will have to reappear to attempt to make right what he did, and did not, do.

The middle section explores the boys growing up in Ethiopia, a coming of age tale if you will. They live a wonderful life, loved and protected by their foster parents, surrounded by the hospital and house staff, and exposed to the medical world all around them from a very young age. The world of medicine and it's practice will become the love of both boys, each in their own way. This section also explores some of the political events that rock Ethiopia over these decades, terrible poverty, political corruption, coups and attempted coups, all ripping the country apart and trying friendships. And, in this section we see how, as expressed by the narrator, the older brother Marion, he and his younger brother Shiva are so close as to be in some ways one, a theme reiterated over and over again in the book

“Thank God that whatever happened we'd always have ShivaMarion to fall back on, I thought. Surely, we could always summon ShivaMarion when we needed too...”

It makes the betrayals that punctuate this section all the more devastating.

Finally, in the last, and to my mind, perhaps the best part of the book, we have played out the series of events those betrayals sets in motion. The events that are maybe just a bit too pat in their conclusion, but very engaging nevertheless. This is ultimately, as are perhaps all great stories, a tale of love. It is a tale of the love of a family and what really makes a family, of one's home and what creates home and how we can and must fix the tears that are rent by our actions and inactions. In the words of Marion again,

“According to Shiva, life is in the end about fixing holes. Shiva didn't speak in metaphors. Fixing holes is precisely what he did. Still it is an apt metaphor for our profession. But there's another kind of hole, and that is the wound that divides family. Sometimes this wound occurs at the moment of birth, sometimes it happens later. We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime. We'll leave much unfinished for the next generation.”

Overall, Cutting for Stone is a very good book but...yes, I always seem to have a 'but'....for me at least, the middle of the book is by far the weakest part, the section most in need of a stronger editor and the Big Red Pen. I mentioned that word 'epic' and maybe that is part of what the middle suffers from, from too much of a desire to make it into a much bigger story than it could hold without losing it center. All the history of the political struggles of the county is very interesting and necessary to the story but to some degree I think how it is explored causes that part of the book to lose it's focus. For me, my connection to the characters and their story, which has to be at the heart of the story, waned a bit as did my interest.

But, if you find yourself in the same position my dear reader, do not despair, because I think that the last 150 pages or so of the book will well reward you. For me, that became the part of the book that I could not put down, that I resented being interrupted by real life from finishing...the sign of a very good book. Abraham Verghese, who is himself a doctor, is a beautiful writer and the images that he paints of Ethiopia and it's peoples in particular are lovely. For his first novel, this is quite a fine effort. Maybe actually a bit more than it should have been, but still quiet fine.

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  1. I was so happy to find your review. I just got this one from the library and have heard great things about it. Nice review; thanks.

  2. Your review is (as Bill would say to Ted) (old movie reference) "most excellent". Thanks for posting it!

  3. This book was so well-reviewd by EW, that it made my List. I shall leave it on the list, and perhaps before I die I will get to it!

  4. I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

  5. I've got this one on my nightstand as I speak. I hope to pick it up in the next few weeks. I'll be back to your review after that. I really only read enough to see if you liked it or not.

  6. I liked it...but looking at other reviews around now, it appears not is much as many..ok most...people did.

  7. I do have this book in my TBR pile, thanks for the great review!


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