Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cutting for Stone

Writers are always told to write what they know. Well, Dr. Abraham Verghese did that and he came up with a winner. Cutting for Stone is on many lists of the best books of the previous year. If I were making such a list, it would most certainly be on mine.

The title of the book is a play on words. Verghese's main characters have the last name of Stone. The Hippocratic Oath admonishes doctors not to "cut for stone" (i.e., perform surgery) but to leave that to the specialists. All of the main characters in this story are surgeons who do "cut for stone," as well as other things.

Verghese has constructed a rich tale of a blended family in a time of tumult. The story begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the 1960s, but has its roots in Mother India, and its tendrils reach all the way to America where they intertwine once again.

It is the story of Shiva and Marion, identical and Siamese twins, joined at the head and separated at birth at Missing Hospital in Ethiopia. They are the forbidden progeny of a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and the chief surgeon of the hospital, Thomas Stone, a haunted man. The twins' mother dies at their birth and their father, devastated by Sister Mary's death and the birth of sons he didn't even know about, disappears, leaving the boys essentially orphaned. They are raised by Hema, the obstetrician who delivered them, and Ghosh, another surgeon at the hospital, and, in fact, by the entire Missing community. They never want for love.

The boys grow up with a preternaturally close relationship that is finally torn asunder by Shiva's actions. Shiva is an interesting character. He seems virtually amoral or without moral considerations, even though he has an inherent sensitivity to others who are suffering. His passion and obsession is to solve problems. He becomes Hema's apprentice and a great gynecologist with a specialty in fixing fistulas, a plague among Third World women, one that sentences them to isolation and often death.

Marion, meanwhile, takes another route, one that leads him to America and to work as a trauma surgeon in a run-down hospital on the edge of a downtrodden community in New York City. It is there where all of the strands of this story, emerging from Ethiopia, start to come together again.

Some of that "coming together" seems a little forced and artificial. America is a big country, after all, and New York is a big city. What are the odds that all these people from a corner of a country so far away will meet again here? And yet they do. And the story reaches its climax and conclusion.

This is a big book and yet it didn't feel long. It kept me reading and wanting to know more. It is full of the intricate medical detail of surgeries that only a doctor could provide, and much of this story feels very personal to Dr. Verghese, not necessarily that he experienced the events himself, but that he has observed and empathized with those who have. It is also full of cultural details of India and Ethiopia, things that make the reader feel what it might be like to live in those societies.

This is a very good book, fully worthy of all the acclaim it has received. I highly recommend it to your attention.

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