Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Many reviews of Cutting for Stone have described it as "sprawling," and it is certainly is a very long book with subject matter that covers a great deal of space and time. Action occurs in India, Ethiopia, and the United States and covers many decades.

The first 100+ pages of the book center on the day in 1954 when twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British doctor. Their mother dies in childbirth and their father immediately disappears. The boys have the good fortune to be adopted by two loving doctors at the mission hospital (known as Missing, a mispronunciation of Mission), ob-gyn Hema and internist turned surgeon Ghosh. They are raised alongside Genet, the daughter of one of the household workers. Marion, who is the book's narrator, is from an early age enamored with Genet, an attraction that will cause him major problems over the course of his life.

Growing up essentially in a hospital, the twins see early on the fragility of life, the power of both medical knowledge and emotional support for the afflicted and their families. Ghosh begins teaching Marion his diagnostic skills from an early age, while Shiva takes a particular interest in the gynecological problem of fistulas, common in Africa. These interests shape their futures, as Marion goes to medical school, while Shiva, who is brilliant but not academically oriented, becomes something of an apprentice to Hema. When Genet is involved in a hijacking, her roommate implicates Marion (who is innocent), and he must flee the country. He ends up at a hospital in New York that serves the poor, where he eventually meets his father and learns the history that caused his father to abandon the twins. More ominously, Marion once again encounters Genet, who has just been released from prison and is suffering from tuberculosis. Marion finally loses his virginity (well into his 30s) to Genet, and a family crisis ensues.

This is the first time I have written about a book after we discussed it at Novel Conversations, and I must report that everyone in the group liked the book better than I did. While everyone reported having trouble getting into the book for the first 100 or more pages and found some of the details of medical procedures and conditions difficult to read, they all eventually came to appreciate the character development, the details about life in Ethiopia and the counterpoint of life in New York City, and the insight into Ethiopian history and politics. While these were strengths of the book, I felt it was too long, with too many details about the boys' childhood in Ethiopia; the themes of loss and exile could have been more powerfully conveyed if the book had "sprawled" less. Had I not been reading the book for book group, I'm not sure I would have finished it. But I didn't hate it--when we graded the book at the end of our discussion, I gave it a B- (it also got two As and three Bs).

Favorite passage:
Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our giant African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration, of the superorganism. It's a sound I believe that only the new immigrant hears, but not for long. By the time I learned to say "Six-inch number seven on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce," the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were now subsumed into the superorganism.

(I like the idea conveyed in this passage, which also illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. Measuring time in terms of how long it takes to learn to order at a deli--brilliant. Switching from first person to second in the last sentence--not so much.)

1 comment:

  1. Abraham Verghese's CUTTING FOR STONE is a well-plotted and historically accurate novel. It's a no-put-down book, a page-turner. It's a mini-history of surgery. It has wonderful characters, surprises, and is worth the effort. With this new work, Verghese reveals himself as much more than a chronicler of his own life. I am a better person for having read it. I believe it will become a class in the literature of medicine.