Posted by: istop4books | June 9, 2010

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Recommended to me by a girlfriend who is a physician, I came to this book with a bit of trepidation. Too many medical descriptions? Dry? Too technical? Too long? I decided to give it the 50 page test. If I wasn’t hooked by page 50 I’d toss it.

Well, I was hooked by page 10 and never stopped to think about my so-called preconceived issues again. This is a smart, well-written, thoughtful, swashbuckler piece of literature. Blend family matters, medicine, culture clashes, Africa, immigration, health care, twin identities, adoption, birth parents, more medicine and you have the gist of the story. Believable, 3 dimensional characters inhabit the pages and move seamlessly from birth to death through the pages of this book.

In the late 1940s a nun from India with a nursing background shows up at a medical mission in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia to work. Seven years later she gives birth to Siamese sons and dies during childbirth. The father of the twins, Dr. Thomas Stone, separates them and in a wave of grief, guilt and despair, flees the mission and abandons the boys.  The twins, Marion and Shiva Stone,  are raised by two of the doctors working in the mission. They are loved, cared for and brought up amidst the sick and those who care for the sick. Ever present in the mission life is the Ethiopian political turmoil, which surrounds daily life at the mission and provides an atmospheric backdrop for the novel. Life at the mission does not happen in a bubble and is greatly affected by happenings outside their walls, however medical work takes center stage and almost becomes another character in the book.  The medical descriptions are technical enough to be realistic, yet are warm and infused with humanity. Perhaps one of most poignant is that of female fistula:  ” An unspeakable scent of decay, putrefaction, and something else for which words remain to be invented reached our nostrils. I saw no point in holding my breath or pinching my nose because the foulness invaded instantly, coloring our insides like a drop of India ink in a cup of water. In a way that children understand their own, we knew her to be innocent of her terrible, overpowering odor. It was of her, but it wasn’t hers. Worse than the odor (since she must have lived with it for more than a few days) was to see her face in the knowledge of how it repulsed and revolted others.”

As the twins grow up, mature and come of age they form friendships and take different paths.  Marion’s path takes him to a rough hospital in the Bronx in New York City.  The  author does a magnificent job of addressing not only the culture shock of arriving in a huge, modern city from Africa – but also the longing for home, family and culture, that feeling of having one foot on one continent and the other on a different continent, so common to immigrants all over the world.

Many of the conversations in the narrative take place during a meal of injera with lentils and lamb curry and other wonderful foods which I imagine would look like this.

The Meaning Behind the Title “Cutting for Stone”

It’s a line taken from the Hippocratic Oath which says: “ I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest.”  Apparently years ago when people had bladder stones, there were medical professionals called Lithologists, who would cut into the bladder to remove the stone.  Of course because of poor hygiene and using the same, unclean knife on multiple patients, many of the patients would succumb to infection.  Also of interest is that the three main characters all have the surname, Stone, which sort of leaves the title open for multiple interpretations.

Absolutely my favorite book so far this year.


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