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Monday, February 29, 2016

Review of CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese

3 Stars
This book was on my to-read pile for quite a while; I finally got to it, but it took me some time to get through it since it’s a dense read.

The plot is straightforward.  Marion and his twin brother Shiva are born in Ethiopia in 1954 to a Carmelite nun and a British surgeon.  They are “orphaned” because their mother dies in childbirth and their father flees.  They are raised by two doctors, Dr. Hemalatha (Hema) and her husband Dr. Ghosh, who work at the hospital where the twins are born.  Marion, the narrator, tells about the people and events that shape their lives and result in a distancing between the twins as they grow up.

The novel has received many laudatory reviews, but I found the book uneven in quality.  As I mentioned, the plot is relatively simple, but the book is rather lengthy.  There are numerous tangents.  The descriptions of surgeries are very detailed, and unnecessarily so.  The author is a physician but not all readers work in the medical field.  Do I really need to know how to repair the vena cava?  The reader will learn about Ethiopian culture and history and the practice of medicine in a society with limited resources.  Unfortunately, some of these digressions overpower the plot. 

The number of coincidences also bothered me.  Characters cross paths by chance just when they need to.  Marion becomes a surgeon in the U.S., a country with a large population, yet he meets several people from his past.  I read a review in The Guardian which expresses my feelings:  “This is a book narrated by a surgeon, and structured as a surgeon might structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up - which is not, in the end, how life actually works” (  The ending is supposed to be satisfying but feels melodramatic.

Characterization is also an issue.  The narrator speaks in a monotone and is quite judgmental so I found it difficult to engage with him.  At times he is so irritating.  The female characters tend to be stereotypes.  Genet, Marion’s childhood sweetheart, is especially problematic.  We see her entirely from Marion’s point of view so she fails to develop into a round character.  (And a scene involving her and Marion in the last part of the novel is very disturbing.)  The character who stands out for me is Ghosh; he is a dynamic character who recognizes his flaws and emerges as a wise and compassionate man.

The novel offers a warning about living one’s life:  “everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny.”  This idea is repeated:  “Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny” and “The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”  To this is added the caution that “no money, no church service, no eulogy, no funeral procession no matter how elaborate, can remove the legacy of a mean spirit.”  “You live [life] forward, but understand it backward.  It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel” so we need to remember that we are all capable of administering first-aid treatment by ear:  “words of comfort.”

I occasionally tackle a big book; this one at over 650 pages qualifies.  Its unevenness makes it a slog at times.  I wish an editor with cutting skills worthy of a surgeon had taken a scalpel to it so the unhealthy elements had been removed.