Cutting For Stone: A Novel Review
Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese takes readers on a wonderful journey into third world medicine performed by dedicated doctors whose work is fueled by passion and whose hearts overflow with compassion for those in their care. The story is set mostly in Ethiopia, but a job in America reconnects three main characters and destroys another.
Since all the major players are surgeons one might think the title refers to that. However, the narrator, Marion, and his identical twin brother, Shiva, are also the illegitimate sons of Thomas Stone, a brilliant but greatly troubled surgeon. Their cutting is meant to help them find the “Stone” within themselves that is their heritage.
The story begins on a compelling note and maintains that hook throughout. Sister Joseph Mary Praise, at age17, meets Thomas Stone on a ship bound for a hospital in Aden, Africa –a hospital which has closed by the time she arrives. Alone and homeless, she is raped, but finds her way to the mission hospital in Ethiopia that Dr. Stone mentioned on the ship and where Stone is now working. She becomes his very capable assistant-- and more. No one knows Sister Mary Joseph Praise is pregnant, not even Stone. By the time people do know, she is beyond help. When Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies, Stone can not handle the knowledge that he impregnated her (a nun), that she died giving birth to his sons, or that his sons are now his responsibility. When he leaves the operating room, he also leaves the country. Hema and Ghosh, the surgeons who take over Stone’s duties after he runs away, also take on the responsibility of the children’s care and education. At this point the story becomes the autobiography of twins, Marion and Shiva Stone. The two are so in sync, they consider themselves MarionShiva.
Marion, Shiva and Jenet (the house keeper’s daughter) are educated together in a private school. They grow up as siblings, though Jenet lives with her mother in quarters on the hospital grounds. At age eleven, Marion becomes attracted to Jenet, though he does nothing about the attraction. As the three grow into their teens, the difference in their circumstances becomes a source of pain for Jenet. She lets her mother mutilate her face to suggest she wishes to embrace her cultural heritage. Later, she allows her mother to circumcise her, partly for the same reason, but also to keep her mother from finding out that she has given herself to Shiva, in order to know what sex is like, and not to Marion, who has professed his love by now. Shiva’s betrayal of Marion puts a riff between the brothers that lasts well into their adulthood.
In America, Marion accidentally meets his father. They form a tenuous relationship until Jenet reemerges on the scene and puts Marion’s life in danger once more. This time Shiva’s selflessness saves Marion and they become MarionShiva once more.
A Big, but Great Read
Cutting For Stone is a BIG book. Just picking it up is foreboding. But, it is full of interesting plot twists that keep the reader wondering what will happen next. On the down side, it is full of medical terms that must be explained and contains many pages describing medical procedures and giving historical background, both of which can get tedious. The 671 pages of subplot symbolizing reunion and redemption are well worth any tedium a reader thinks he/she feels, however.