Cutting for Stone – A Book Review

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.

Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.

Where do I start with my review? I love this amazingly huge chunkster – the writing is simple yet beautiful, the story very local to Ethiopia, but at the same time, it is universal enough to appeal to a global audience.

The best part of the story is the gradual unfolding of the back stories of all the key protagonists in the story. I loved reading about the pasts of Thomas Stone and Sister Mary Joseph Praise in Madras, India, a city I grew up in, but which is now industrialized and a far cry from the pre-independence era Madras. I loved how the story leisurely moves from Madras to Ethiopia, and I loved learning a bit about that country’s history. Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Ethiopia, and I welcomed the chance to learn and read about that country through this book. Isn’t that what reading is all about? Opening new worlds to explore sitting in the comfort of your own home?

Note that I describe this book with the adjectives gradual and leisurely…you know what it means right? This is a slooow read. It took me almost a month reading this book. It’s a big book, and it’s a book that you need to take your time with. It’s not the thrilling, gripping read that keeps you up all night fretting about the plot.

What it is though, is one of those genuinely old-fashioned family sagas – it’s not a typical family, but it’s a family saga just the same. It’s also a book where medicine plays a huge part. The entire story is set in hospitals and all the main characters are doctors or nurses, or other such medical staff with the result that there is a lot of medical jargon, medical history, references to medical textbooks, and such that weighed the book down in places. I could have done without a lot of this jargon, considering I am squeamish when it comes to these things.

Another aspect that could have been better was the characterization of some of the people. The story is told through the voice of Marion Stone – one of the twins, but he is really quite a flat and rather boring character. He falls milkily in love with Genet who uses him all the time, and finally betrays him in a particularly hurtful way. I hated it that in spite of the betrayal, he still helped her time and time again, and allowed himself to be abused like that.

Genet also is a royal pain. Her characterization is quite bad, and pretty one-sided. I could not find any positive quality in her whatsoever, and just couldn’t understand Marion’s obsession with her.

The biggest disappointment though is Shiva – Marion’s twin brother. He is discussed very briefly. What little we learn about Shiva is through Marion’s eyes. We never get to hear his side of the tale at all. That’s a real pity because he’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve read recently, and it was a bit frustrating reading about him in bits and pieces. I kept reading on to find out more about Shiva and also a possible faceoff between him and Marion, but that never happened at all. The finale was another kind of denouement and although I didn’t like it at that time, I think I can appreciate the ending now that some time has gone by after I finished the book.

The best-written characters are Hema and Ghosh, the twins’ parents, and I love how brave, and big-hearted they were. The best bits in the book deal with the love story between Ghosh and Hema, and the way they build their life together in Ethiopia. The sections on Ghosh’s illness and his dying days are really poignant and well-written. When he dies, a lot of the joyfulness and life in the book dies with him.

Overall, this book is worth reading just for the sake of Ghosh and Hema, and their relationship with these boys, and the beautiful and unique setting of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Lovely, touching read.

I am including this book as the first book of 2013 for the Indian Quills Reading Challenge

Thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.

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  • Wonderful review. I literally just saw this one on the used book sale shelf at my library, but passed it up because the text looked so dense! I may go back for it.. I think it was only 50 cents!

  • Shweta

    Lovely review. I remember u saying in one of the teaser Tuesday post that the book had too much of medical jargon. Glad to know that it turned out to be a fabulous read.

    • @Shweta: Yes, it certainly was fabulous. It’s a lovely peek into a very different culture and way of life. It’s not often I get to read books based in Africa, and I love how he brought out the beauty as well as the terrible struggles in Ethiopia. Definitely worth reading!

  • This has been in my TBR for like forever 🙂 I really need to do this someday soon 🙂 Sounds like a great book.

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