Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”): The book club I raved about chose this book for our November book club meeting.

Summary:

The book starts off with a tantalizing Prologue that introduces the main characters of the book, Marion and Shiva (twin brothers), Addis Ababa (capital city of Ethiopia where most of the story takes place), Missing Hospital, Sister Mary Joseph Praise (twins’ mother), Dr. Ghosh (father to the twins), and Dr. Thomas Stone (biological father). Other major characters factor into the life of Marion, whose life we follow, including Hema, and Genet, but we meet them later in the story. Dr. Abraham Verghese is a theatrical writer and leaves several hints and clues in his prologue.

However sly Dr. Verghese is, a prologue is known for providing some essential information for the reading of the book. This holds true for the prologue here, and more importantly, it offers the mystery. If you do not grab ahold of this mystery, you may not make it to the meat of the book, which reaches prime juiciness around page 250. While there are moments in the first 250 pages that pulled me along, I cannot say I was committed to finishing the book until about page 250. Well, I committed to finishing the book for book club, but without that I may have abandoned the book. The book is too good to abandon, but it did betray me at page 485. Yes, it was such a deep betrayal that I noted the page and cursed Dr. Verghese.

Why, you might ask, did I feel so personally betrayed? Mostly because Dr. Verghese pulled me along with the hope of strong female characters so lacking in much of literature (and yes, please leave book titles in the comments that have strong female characters). As I was saying, he pulled me along with this promise. While there are strong female characters in the book, they are limited to peripheral roles. Even Hema, who mothers Marion, got a great introduction, we really get a sense of how she thinks, her familial history, and who she is – and then POOF! She is reduced to a mere figurehead who, while offering great influence in Marion’s life, no longer gets page time of her own development. That was disappointing, but not the cause of the betrayal. I will let you read the betrayal yourself, and will close this topic by saying it underscored Marion’s disdain for all females, a trait Dr. Verghese cleverly disguises but which is simmering below the surface throughout the book. Or is it Dr. Verghese’s disdain seeping into his character? Is it his commentary on society? On Marion? Why did he choose this act for Marion’s zenith? It is impossible for me to say.

The delightful part of reading Dr. Verghese’s well-crafted story is in the details. He sets the story in revolutionary Ethiopia, highlights the Italian influences on Addis Ababa left over from Italy’s occupation, describes numerous diseases and medical procedures, and thoughtfully sets up questions of philosophy and morality upon these backdrops. With the mystery of Marion’s parents’s lives leading us by the nose throughout the book, we have ample opportunity to search our own souls on questions of what family means, what role family plays in personal development and career choice, and how much of ourselves is inherent in our genetics and how much is learned and chosen. These questions play out over a dramatic story of a place that is a fantasy. The fantasy is in the foreignness, for westerners like me who haven’t traveled in Africa. The fantasy is in the selective application of timing of historical events for those who lived through them. Dr. Verghese admits to this free use of history and he applies it well to the dramatic development of the storyline.

The excerpts below show the deep thinking of Dr. Verghese’s characters in “Cutting for Stone.” It was a book that presented many difficulties which were well matched with highlights and rewards for working through the difficulties. While my sense of betrayal keeps me from embracing this book wholeheartedly, I feel quite comfortable recommending it to anyone who is looking for an escape from everyday life, looking to step into another time and place and imagine how your choices would play out in these circumstances, or looking for a thought-provoking book with a well developed story and lovable characters in a foreign land.

Best Excerpts:

“We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot.”
p. 6
***

“No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible for you.”
p. 6

***
“But of all the qualities of the women he met in Addis, the most important was their acquiescence, their availability. For months after his arrival in Addis, well after his discovery of the Ibis and so many other bars like it, Ghosh was celibate. The irony of that period was that the one woman he wanted rejected his advances, while all around him were women who never said no. He was twenty-four and not totally inexperienced when he arrived in Ethiopia. The only intimacy he’d ever had in India was with a young probationer by the name of Virgin Magdalene Kumar. Shortly after their three-month affair ended, she left her order and married a chap he knew (and presumably changed her name to Magdalene Kumar).

“Hema, I am only human,” he murmured now as he did every time he thought he was being unfaithful to her.

p. 126

***

“The following night, we couldn’t wait to talk about Abu Kassem. We all saw it the same way. The old man was right. The slippers in the stry mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny…I met Hema in the septic ward at Government General Hospital in India, in Madras, and that brought me to this continent. Because of that, I got the biggest gift of my life–to be a father to you two. Because of that, I operated on General Mebratu, who became my friend. Because he was my friend, I went to prison. Because I was a doctor, I helped to save him, and they let me out. Because I saved him, they could hang him…You see what I am saying?”

I didn’t, but he spoke with such passion I wasn’t about to stop him.

“I never knew my father, and so I thought he was irrelevant to me. My sister felt his absence so strongly that it made her sour, and no no matter what she has, or will ever have, it won’t be enough.” He sighed. “I made up for his absence by hoarding knowledge, skills, seeking praise. What I finally understood in Kerchele is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father’s absence is our slippers. In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves.”

All these years and I hadn’t known this about Ghosh, about his father dying when he was young. He was like us, fatherless, but at least we had him. Perhaps he’d been worse off than we were.

Ghosh sighed. “I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

p. 286.

***

“The black-suited drivers led their passengers to sleek black cars, but my man led me to a big yeloow taxi. In no time we were driving out of Kennedy Airport, heading to the Bronx. We merged at what I thought was dangerous speed onto a freeway and into the slipstream of racing vehicles. “Marion, jet travel has damaged your eardrums,” I said to myself, because the silence was unreal. In Africa, cars ran not on petrol but on the squawk and blare of their horns. Not so here: the cars were near silent, like a school of fish. All I heard was the whish of rubber on concrete or asphalt.

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.”

p. 379

***

“I took my own deep breath. I sat on the edge of his bed. I held his hand. “Mr. Walters, I’m afraid I have some bad news. We found something unexpected in your belly.” This was the first time in America that I had to give someone news of a fatal illness, but it felt like the first time ever. It was as if in Ethiopia, and even in Nairobi, people assumed that all illness–even a trivial or imagined one–was fatal; they expected death. The news to convey in Africa was that you’d kept death at bay. Those things that you couldn’t do, and those diseases you couldn’t reverse, were left unspoken. It was understood. I don’t recall an equivalent word for “prognosis” in Amharic, and I’d never tried to speak to a patient about five-year survival or anything like that. In America, my initial impression was that death or the possibility of it always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took it for granted that we were immortal, and that death was just an option.”

p. 396

***

ISBN: 0375414495

Book website: http://www.abrahamverghese.com/books.asp

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