I am a the type of reader who loves when an author takes me somewhere I have never been before and, while there, teaches me things I have never known. When they are able to do this teaching without preaching, it is an extra added bonus. It takes a little while–you need to have a little patience as it introduces the numerous main and supporting characters, the place, and the twines of the story. You are fastened. Momentum increases and you are completely absorbed. You know how some novels just possess you? Well, this book kept me captive in my own home for a weekend…
Cutting for Stone is a beautifully written coming-of-age novel weaving family, hospital and house staff, patients, community, disease, and country into a complex tapestry. It incorporates love, lust, trust, betrayal, commitment, emigration, faith, poverty, life, death, hope, dreams, fears, and just about every other big theme you can imagine without ever becoming predictable, manipulative, or cliched. It’s an epic story that feels intimate and cozy and enveloping.
Dr. Verghese clearly loves his own medical craft as well as writing. He handles his characters with utter compassion, never shrinking away from the truth of their dysfunction or destructiveness, yet bringing us along for the glory of their triumph. The best part of the novel was the genuine humanity of its many characters, and the course of their lives.
While reading you will also notice the fine points are painstakingly researched as the story is and packed full of medical jargon and situations along with vivid descriptions of Ethiopian culture and history. I have never been to Ethiopia and I know I never will. When I think of Ethiopia, I have visions of a totally undeveloped country. While I’m sure these visions are partially true, Verghese really opened my eyes to another part of the world in a country where medical teams still strive for perfection without the kind of money that easily flows into many of the hospitals of which we’re familiar. Verghese’s Ethiopia is filled with people who love their country and their food and their smells and their customs. And when a time comes that they leave their beloved country behind, they miss it as much as we would miss ours. There are multiple situations that arise throughout the book where he describes surgical procedures with spot-on accuracy, I assume. In several circumstances they become a vehicle to explain the progress of surgery through the hands of medical pioneers.
The title of the novel Cutting for Stone is a reference to the Hippocratic Oath which states “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”. Apparently years ago when people had bladder stones, there were medical professionals called Lithologists, who would cut into the bladder to remove the stone. Of course because of poor hygiene and using the same, unclean knife on multiple patients, many of the patients would succumb to infection. Also of interest is that the three main characters all have the surname, Stone, which sort of leaves the title open for multiple interpretations. By the time you get to the end of the novel, those three words become the poignant portal to the denouement and the thrust of its theme.
If I say too much about this book, I’ll have to throw in a lot of spoilers, and suspense has its delicious rewards in this leisurely paced plot. So I won’t. Suffice it to say, I believe your patience with Verghese will be rewarded with the wisdom you will find woven into the story. It is a brilliant novel which revolves around what is broken – limbs, family ties, trust – and the process of rebuilding them.
Allow yourself the luxury of time to read “Cutting for Stone” without interruption. If you do not, you will find yourself thinking about the
characters and wondering what is going to happen to each one.
P.S. I must say that I found reading this 650 page novel a bit of a chore. It most certainly could have used some heavy editing. Time and again I would look at the page number, and groan.