Monday, November 7, 2011

"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is a unique book that I think I would have enjoyed even more if it wasn't nearly so long. Even so, it has a lot that makes it a worthwhile and engaging. The novel takes place largely in Ethiopia, following the expats working at Missing Hospital. There the reader meets Sister Mary Praise, an Indian nun who works as a surgery assistant to Thomas Stone, a skilled British surgeon. When Sister Mary dies in (an unknown to everyone else) childbirth, the Indian gynecologist Hema and the Indian physician Ghosh become her twins' parents. The story then is told primarily from the point of view of the twin Marion a he grows up in Missing and becomes a surgeon himself.

Ethiopia is a fascinating setting for the book, as it challenges and reinforces notions of African poverty.  Missing lacks many of the medical advancements available in the United States, but it also has skilled and dedicated doctors who do much to improve the lives of those around them. It's also interesting to see the growth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, native Ethiopians of Indian and British parents. They are a part of and separate from their country of birth, especially because their position as the children of Hema and Ghosh allows them privileges others don't receive. Cutting for Stone is also situated at an interesting period historically, as the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie is challenged.

It's clear from the novel that Verghese is himself a doctor. His passion for his profession is evident in his exact detail of surgeries (not for the squeamish!) and also his emphasis on compassion in medicine. Verghese's own upbringing mirrors Marion's in many ways, and that authenticity of detail in the locations and in the challenges of being a foreign a medical student was a great strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel that same believability in the characters. I wanted to like the characters more than I was able to, particularly because I felt Verghese strives too hard to make them "literary." Marion's life-long obsession with an early love is tiresome and culminates in a highly problematic rape scene that's not depicted as rape. Shiva's standoffish "not like others" personality feels forced. In the real world he might be labeled as autistic, but in the novel, he comes across as mysteriously (and unrealistically) otherworldly.

Part of the problem may be the length of the novel. The paperback comes in at nearly 700 pages, but because I read it on a Kindle, I really had no idea that it was a long book until I finished. Instead, the story simply felt interminable, and while I read, I tended to attribute my inability to make much headway to failures in the story itself, rather than the length.

Cutting for Stone came to me highly recommended, and it's undoubtedly an interesting novel, though I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

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