Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Cutting for Stone

Posted by nliakos on January 24, 2016

by Abraham Verghese (Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2009; ISBN 978-0-375-71436-8)

Narrated by Dr. Marion Stone, this novel recounts the story of Marion’s families (his birth parents, whom he never knew; his adoptive parents Dr. Hemlatha and Dr. Ghosh, who raise him and his twin Shiva in a hospital compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Genet, his beloved, who lives with her mother Rosina in the hospital compound. It tells the dramatic story of the twins’ conception and birth; narrates their childhood and adolescence, marked by coups and civil war; and follows Marion to America where he flees probable arrest and death after a hijacking by Eritrean rebels. He interns as a surgeon at a small Catholic hospital in the Bronx, where he treats patients living in poverty and affected by violence. And one day, Marion becomes a patient in that hospital, so close to death that only a sacrifice from his twin, and the skill of his biological father, can save him.

Abraham Verghese is a surgeon himself, and a professor at Stanford’s School of Medicine, and he certainly shares his expertise with the reader, describing many surgical procedures and diseases in graphic detail. For example: Four families of vessels enter or leave the liver. First, the portal vein, which carries all the venous blood leaving the gut and hauls it to the liver, blood that after a meal is rich in fats and other nutrients for the factory to process. . . . (pg. 624)  I must confess I did not read these parts too closely.

He also has a great eye for detail and develops his characters wonderfully. I would love to know someone like Dr. Ghosh, who seems impossibly kind and wise, or Dr. Hemlatha, who brooks no nonsense from anyone but loves the twins more than anything. I learned a lot about Ethiopian culture and history from this book, as well; Verghese, like his narrator, was born to Indian parents in Addis Ababa, so he knows of what he speaks. I enjoyed the description of Marion’s culture shock upon arrival in the United States: The ritual of immigration and baggage claim went by so quickly I wondered if I’d missed it. Where were the armed soldiers? The dogs? The long lines? The body searches? Where were the tables where your luggage was laid open and a knife taken to the lining? (pg. 461) But a rude awakening comes when a fellow intern explains why American doctors in training are nowhere in evidence at their hospital, an “Ellis Island hospital”–they are all at the “Mayflower hospitals” which treat rich patients and harvest organs from the Ellis Island hospitals (Chapter 40). Can this be true? I hope it is not.

The significance of the title is never really explained. Is it a play on words (the family name Stone)?  The Hippocratic oath contains a reference to cutting for stone: a physician promises not to cut for (gall/kidney?) stones but to leave that task to one who specializes in it. But what this has to do with the story is a mystery to me. (Verghese answers a question about the title in this interview published in the Sacramento Bee.)

The book held my rapt attention from beginning to end.

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One Response to “Cutting for Stone”

  1. […] the little time remaining, he worked until he was no longer able to do so, and he wrote this book. Abraham Verghese, who knew Kalanithi slightly, wrote the […]

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