I’ve been telling everybody to read this superb novel from Abraham Verghese. It is refreshing on every level --- from the setting (Ethiopia) to its characters (Indian medical workers, twin boys borne of a nun) to a complex web of storylines that covers every emotional base. This is one of those books you don’t want to see end and that will leave you hungry for more.
Shiva and Marion Stone are identical twins. In the womb, they were joined by a small “stalk” at the head, but during a rather traumatic birth this physical tie is severed, leaving behind an intimate relationship unique to such siblings. In fact, for many years, when sharing a crib or bed, they sleep with their heads just touching, perhaps in the place where the long-gone bond once existed. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, is a surgical nurse whose skills in the theatre are mythic. The surgeon (and presumed father of the boys) with whom she worked as closely as though their four hands moved with one thought is Dr. Thomas Stone. The Sister and the Doctor’s first encounter is as shipmates bound for medical service in Ethiopia, a meeting filled with portent as Sister Mary Joseph singlehandedly saves Stone’s life on the voyage.
By different routes, both Sister Mary Joseph and Stone end up at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, locally known as the Missing Hospital --- a mispronunciation of mission. Throughout the book, the political unrest and upheaval of Ethiopia is a constant backdrop. At times, the violence outside their gates even intrudes upon the grounds of the hospital disrupting its humanitarian objectives.
Shiva and Marion are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two of the hospital’s other doctors, both of whom come into their own throughout the course of the book. The rest of the hospital’s community --- the Matron, various nurses and household workers --- also play a role in their upbringing, helping to fill the void left by both their departed and deceased parents. Living within this environment and under the long shadows of their legendary parents, both boys discover great yet completely diverse strengths in the world of medicine in which they reside.
As the years pass, Marion follows his father’s footsteps into surgery and eventually to America, where we learn a lot about the life of foreign medical students brought to this country to finish their studies and to serve as affordable health care providers for our nation’s many lower-income medical facilities. Shiva remains in Ethiopia where he assists Hema in both national and world-wide campaigns to better women’s reproductive health. While both boys have much experience with life and death decisions --- from their birth, to living in a war zone, to tending third world patients for whom every day can be just such a battle --- the book’s climax is reached when one more life or death situation is placed before them.
It is impossible to fully explore the incredible depth of CUTTING FOR STONE within a few paragraphs. Each character is so fully developed from start to finish that the reader becomes deeply involved with each and every one. Verghese’s skill at intertwining so many stories is awesome and prohibits simple description of the novel as a whole. Suffice it to say that it is deserving of every rave review, every critic’s recommendation and my feeling that it is truly THE book of Winter 2009. This is the book you need to put at the top of your reading list right now.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on December 29, 2010
Cutting for Stone