Cutting for Stone

Posted by Mike

I guess it could be called a coming of age story, but it’s long and hefty enough to be considered a saga, a least of one family’s history, but either way it is a gripping narrative that provides bonuses for the reader that are not normally found in today’s novels. The author, Abraham Verghese, is Ethiopian born of Indian parents, teachers in Addis Ababa. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford. Cutting for Stone clearly is derived from the author’s early experiences and family life in Addis Ababa. The story is about the birth, early life and young adulthood of identical twins, Marion and Shiva Stone, born unexpectedly to a Catholic sister from India, serving in a small hospital in the capital city of Ethiopia. The author provides extensive biographical vignettes of virtually all of the foreign workers and natives who work in the hospital, such that the reader becomes intimately familiar with the lives of not only the principals of the narrative but of most of the minor characters.

The bonuses from the novel are several. The reader experiences what life was like for expatriates in a major city in North Africa, not only for Indian doctors and nurses, but for an international group of expats. It reminds me a little of the cultural immersion that I experienced years ago in reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. You feel like you are there, learning about the culture, and also – given the author’s expertise – being immersed into medical problems that present themselves to the clinic: the problems, the sorting out of alternative treatments, and the solutions (when there were solutions). Dr. Verghese is so thorough and detailed at times that the reader is left with the impression that he or she just might be able to attempt a particular operation, with scalpel in one hand and the book in the other, a vasectomy, for example.

Cutting for Stone has the boys growing up as orphans taken in by two doctors who were not their parents; they go to school; one completes medical school and the other becomes a non-licensed surgeon, working with his obstetrician mother. There is a love story, with competition between the brothers, a revolution, and eventually the main protagonist must leave Ethiopia due to political issues. The novel documents his experiences as a foreign intern and resident in the United States and ends with a very bittersweet crisis in which Marion must undergo a liver transplant, with the donor being his brother Shiva, who flies from Ethiopia to Marion’s bedside. Like life, perhaps novels shouldn’t all end happily ever after, as so many do. In the case of this narrative, like life, the denouement is mixed, but a number of loose ends are tied up which clarify multiple mysteries.

If you’d like something weighty, interesting, and informative as a diversion from the upcoming holiday madness, try Cutting for Stone. You’ll come away wiser.

Flag of Ethiopia

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