Book Club review: Cutting For Stone

Another great review by our blogger Cindy Bushey

Meeting on Feb. 28, 2013

Sometimes it is a good thing to step outside your comfort zone and discover different perspectives and opinions.  The mind expands to take in everything new and sift it, adjusting personal views and biases and thereby experiencing that wonderful, enlightening event called growth.  Perhaps that is why travel was often referred to as “broadening” since the traveler expanded his or her horizons and tried new things (as opposed to the broadening of the posterior often experienced today with those wonderful vacation packages and cruises!).  Zion’s readers traveled far this month as they read “Cutting For Stone” by Abraham Verghese, a novel that begins and develops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia before sojourning for a while in the United States and, finally, returning once more to Ethiopia.

Dr. Verghese traces the lives of two twin brothers, whose conception is wrapped in mystery and whose birth is a total shock to the staff of Missing Hospital inAddis Ababa since their mother is a Catholic nun who dies during the birth.  Briefly conjoined at birth but separated successfully, the twins grow to manhood during the late 1950’s and 1960’s as Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime is starting to crumble.  The author deftly weaves the political turmoil, detailed descriptions of medical practices and procedures, and the gradual formation of an adoptive family for the boys into a gripping story.  Named Marion and Shiva by their adoptive mother Hema, an Indian doctor at the hospital, their life story is told in the first person byMarionas he and Shiva grow into two very different people both grounded in the medical world. Marioneventually travels to theUnited   Statesto pursue his education and broadens his own personal horizons.  The challenges he faces professionally and personally, the relationships with his brother and friends, and the solution of his mysterious conception are neatly stitched together by the end of the book.

For readers with a medical bent, this book offers an intriguing look at past best medical practices and vivid descriptions of various surgical procedures while never losing sight of the human subjects and doctors.  Readers who object to knowing intimate details of the body’s bloody interior (as did some ofZion’s readers) will find many passages to skip.  However, since the practice of medicine is a significant part of Shiva’s and Marion’s characters, the details are often necessary for character development.

For readers with a love of history and politics, this book explores the levels of society in the latter half of the 1900’s inEthiopiawith a clear and sympathetic eye.  It follows the changes and growing pains of revolution and starkly compares this to life inNew York Cityas a foreign medical resident.

For readers who favor mysteries and the roller coaster of human emotions, certainly the story of Marion and Shiva is compelling as the author hasMarioncutting through the tendons of his past as he moves toward his future only to finally confront the past and come to terms with it.

All that said, this book is LONG – over 600 pages filled with great and, some ofZion’s readers would say, laborious detail.  The middle section of the book moves slowly and ponderously, and there the author’s long-winded descriptions can sometimes seem tedious.  His characters are well-drawn although not always sympathetic.  The characters’ diversity of cultural backgrounds offers readers an educational opportunity and a chance to cut through some of our own biases.  It is often difficult for residents of theUnited   Statesto identify with other people’s deeply held patriotic feelings and love of country.  We tend to paint with a broad brush and lump them together as “third world”.   Dr. Verghese’s eye for detail and copious research brings forth a different picture of individuals with all their messy motivations and emotions who, nevertheless, are seeking as we all do to improve their own status in life and provide that opportunity also for their children.  Our readers related to some of the characters more easily than others. Marion’s adoptive mother Hema elicited the most reaction from our readers as a strong, confident woman who created a loving home for the twins, a home that included her admirable husband, Gosh, another doctor atMissingHospitalwho had long had a crush on her.  Our readers were particularly taken with Hema’s idea of an annually renewable marriage contract!  The boys’ presumed natural father, Dr. Thomas Stone, was not a likeable character although his formative life offered clues to his character.  The character of childhood friend Genet seemed to bear too great a load as the author used her in a rather contrived way throughout the novel.

One ofZion’s readers saw metaphors where others did not such as when Marion leaves open drawers after invading his birth father’s apartment.  Could those open drawers stand for the open holes the father left in Marion’s and Shiva’s lives?  Others felt that there are times when an open drawer is just an open drawer.  Certainly, our readers learned a great deal about things they had possibly never considered before – the challenges and risks of developing cutting-edge surgeries like liver transplants, the horrible wounds of fistulas and genital mutilation inflicted on young girls in a society with little respect for the female sex, the fact that 25% of doctors practicing in the United States right now are from other countries.

By the time our readers finished the story and celebrated withMarionthe knowledge of his origins, we all felt the author had used a contrived ending to weave all his strands together.  There was speculation about the title and whether it referred to the character Thomas Stone, the Hippocratic Oath, or Marion’s progress through the layers of his life.  We also felt that Dr. Verghese left some questions unanswered , but perhaps unresolved questions give the mind another growth opportunity as readers ponder character motivations.  The first person delivery of the story from the time in the womb to the solution of the conception appeared to one reader like a stream of consciousness tale that was not totally believable.  Nevertheless, we could all grasp why “Cutting For Stone” enjoyed a long stay at the top of the best seller lists.  One reader gave a two-thumbs up rating, five gave a one-thumb up vote, three remained neutral, and one reader voted one-thumb down.  Those readers with time to devote to this book will not come away unaffected by Marion’s and Shiva’s story.