Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cutting for Stone finds beauty in the most horrifying places on earth

Abraham Verghese’s sensational Cutting for Stone is about destiny and finding your place in the world – about what is pre-determined, and what you can make happen on your own. The book follows the life of most unlikely twins Marion and Shiva Stone, their birth mother an Indian nun, their birth father a British surgeon, as they grow up in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. After the twins’ mother dies in childbirth, they are raised in Addis Ababa’s expatriate medical community by two Indian doctors, Hema and Ghosh.

“Sensational” is the exact word for this book, as Verghese offers insights into Marion and Shiva’s startling and visceral relationships with their seemingly star-crossed adoptive parents, their godmother who runs the hospital at which their parents worked, their panoply of family friends and helpers, their childhood playmate Genet, and finally and most importantly, each other. Even though they are born under the most horrible circumstances possible, the boys embrace their circumstances, proving that great love is possible whenever the right heart is willing. The author’s evocative writing, which is from the perspective of the older twin, Marion, allows us to experience the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and emotions of the boys’ world, but the narrative never comes to any conclusion about the world the boys “should” occupy – it is a book that radiates the current moment, even when it is relating the past.

One of the major themes in this novel is “belonging.” With whom do you fit in, and why? Is it community that makes a culture, or is it religion or is it geography? Midway through the novel, even though the twins are born in Ethiopia, and they speak Amharic fluently, Marion realizes that he is not seen as “Ethiopian,” but as an expatriate. Having realized how far out of the mainstream Addis Ababa is because of his late introduction to American rock and roll, Marion starts to rethink the romanticism of the expatriate life.

“I’d always thought the expatriates represented the best of culture and style of the 'civilized' world. But I could see now that they were so far from Broadway or the West End or La Scala, that they probably were a decade behind the times, just as I’d been with Chuck Berry.” (p. 314)

How far are you from your culture if you’ve never even seen it first hand? Can ancestors you’ve never met help determine the person you will become? Verghese examines the many reasons for leaving one's homeland, and the many reactions to those who already inhabit the places where immigrants land, from Africa to the Bronx.

This is a fascinating and beautifully written novel. I appreciated the complexity and enigmatic nature of the personalities portrayed in the book – there is neither good nor bad in these characters, only detail. In that sense, the novel resembles a medical chart, crammed with as much information, and as little bias, as possible. Not surprising as the author is a professor of medicine at Stanford. I loved the author’s ability to underscore the human predicament of even the most unlikeable characters. There is no “cartoonish” evil in this book – as in life, evil is subtle and situational.

Toward the end the book was a bit myopic – for example, there are many native born US American interns in New York City’s toughest hospitals, although the novel's characters categorically insist there are not. Clearly, Verghese is trying to make a case about the necessity of the educated immigrant class, but that case could have been made without the only stereotypes that inhabit the novel, the “high-and-mighty” American MDs. The rest of the book was so much more nuanced that I couldn’t help but be disappointed on that point.

Still, Cutting for Stone is a work of the first decade of the 21st century that no one who loves literature should miss. The author’s attention to detail and appreciation for other cultures is rare. The characters he creates are so real that I couldn’t help but wonder where they are now. I give this book an unqualified recommendation.


  1. I've only skimmed this review and am quite psyched about the words I've picked up on without ruining my expectations... I just today picked this book up from my library's perpetual book sale (only $2!) and am looking forward to it very much. I'll prob get to it in 3 yrs considering the backlog of books I own yet still to read...

  2. You will love it whenever you get to it, Care!


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col