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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


I have been hearing raving reviews about this book ever since ARCs started showing up at work, well over a year ago, and while it sounded intriguing, I just wasn't drawn to it. I also figure it was the kind of book my book club would select and make me read so I'd just wait until then. Which is precisely what happened! Luckily, I just barely finished it in time.

Cutting for Stone is narrated by Marion Stone, a surgeon who tells us his whole history and how he turned out to be who he is now. I found it odd when he was narrating - in scrupulous detail without saying how he heard what exactly happened - events before he was born, as he was being born (and I'm sorry, him saying he remembered some of the birth did not help. In fact, that induced some eye-rolling.) and elsewhere in the book events that happened when he was absent (although not so much of this.) It also gives a disjointed impression that the book is being told alternately in third person and first person, which it is not. It's just that first person sounds like third person when the narrator is not actually a witness to events he is describing. But this was a pretty easy flaw to overlook. Obviously, Marion being able to tell us everything is a version of magical realism, and you just need to flow with it. (I also don't like magical realism which might be one reason why this bugged me so much.)

Marion and his conjoined twin Shiva are born in a charity hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British doctor (they are separated right away). His mother dies during the birth and his father disappears immediately after. Marion and Shiva are raised by Hema, the staff ob/gyn, and Ghosh, the internist at the Missing Hospital. When they are teens, there is a terrible rift between the twins, and a few years later, during the revolution, Marion is forced to leave Ethiopia and he finishes his medical training in New York City. But he can never truly leave his past behind.

The story is beautifully told, and I really felt that I got a feel for Addis Ababa in the time of Haile Selassie. It also expertly conveys how, for some, medicine is really a calling, a passion, not a job. The storytelling is a bit languid and florid, and I felt the plot didn't really begin until about halfway through the book, and at that point my reading pace was able to pick up considerably. The beginning background is important for understanding Marion and the decisions he makes, not to mention for the overall themes of how our past defines our future, and running away never helps anything. But if you start to wonder (as I did) if a plot will ever kick in - don't worry that's exactly when it does. I'm afraid I didn't love this as much as I had hoped, but it was a great novel. Perhaps it was built up too much for me. This is a true saga in the best sense of the word.

6 comments:

Kathy said...

I, like you, have not felt myself drawn to this book. Unlike you, I haven't overcome that yet. And after reading your review, I'm still not sure about it! The good things you say sound wonderful . . . but I'm not convinced they outweigh the bad.

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for the honest review. I have wanted to read this for awhile - now I am not sure!

Carin S. said...

I know this isn't an unqualified rave, but I did really enjoy the book (particularly the second half), and I also think it was actually one of the best discussions we've ever had at Book Club. Normally we get off track adn start talking about People and celebrities after about 20 minutes, but we talked about this book for more than double that. It has a TON of fascinating topics and of course such an interesting setting none of us knew about. If you really want to read it but just aren't sure, I suggest you suggest it to your book club. Because it's such a great discussion book, even if you don't love it, you'll still find it a great discussion book which does make up a bit for any small flaws.

christa @ mental foodie said...

"Normally we get off track and start talking about People and celebrities after about 20 minutes" - sounds like my book club :) I suggested this book to our book club for the coming year, but it wasn't selected :( It's on my TBR list but I'd been putting it off... maybe I'll read it in the winter when there are less things going on! I have high expectation too due to all the hype... but maybe I shouldn't since i usually get disappointed (e.g. The Passage)...

Jenners said...

I just finished this today. I picked it up because of all the rapturous reviews I've seen of it, but I didn't love it. I actually had to force myself to keep reading it ... not that it was bad but it just didn't draw me in like the best books do.

laura said...

I rate it highly. It is at once a look into Ethiopia, its peoples, culture and history, as well as a look into the souls of healers. The characters and sense of place in this novel are very vivid, as is the relationship and gulf between medicine in the third world and medicine in the first world. What I found compelling is the basic love these doctors had for their poverty-stricken patients which drove them to find the treatment and discover the cures for the afflicted and dispossessed.