Shiva and Marion Praise Stone come into the world as identical twins attached at the skull. Their father, a British surgeon living in Ethiopia, abandons them within moments of their birth, and their mother (a nun who kept her pregnancy secret from everyone) dies without holding them in her arms. The two brothers are raised in and around the hospital in which they are born. Called Missing. a misspelling of the intended name Mission, its name coincides with one of the major themes of the novel: missing people, missing fathers, missing clues, etc… Abraham Verghese’s sprawling family saga spans nearly fifty years and takes the readers from Ethiopia, to New York, to Boston, and back to the small village in Africa where the story first began.
Marion narrates the novel, taking the reader back to when his mother first makes her voyage to Africa as a young first novitiate of the Carmelite Order of Madras. While traveling there she meets Thomas Stone, a skilled British surgeon, and the first glimmerings of their love begin. In the first part of the book, the reader is introduced to Matron (Missing’s wise leader), Hema (a gynecologist who becomes the boys’ adoptive mother), Ghosh (a warm and caring doctor who imbues Marion with the desire to become a surgeon), Rosina (the boys’ nursemaid), and Genet (Rosina’s young daughter who steals Marion’s heart). Once the characters have been established, the novel moves forward building on the lives of the characters and pulling the reader into their stories.
Verghese’s debut novel is centered around the twins who although are physically identical, are very different people. Their connection as brothers is tested throughout the book, and although the reader sees their relationship through only the eyes of Marion, it is a compelling look at siblings, specifically twins.
He was the rake, and I the erstwhile virgin; he the genius who acquired knowledge effortlessly while I toiled in the night for the same mastery; he the famous fistula surgeon, and I just another trauma surgeon. Had we switched roles, it wouldn’t have mattered one bit to the universe. – from Cutting for Stone -
Cutting for Stone is a big, wonderful saga about love, fate, search for identity, and the passion that drives one to pursue their life’s work. The lives of the characters find a natural rhythm in the setting of Ethiopia, a country which has faced coups, military dictatorship, and instability. Verghese captures the beauty of Ethiopia’s countryside, as well as the colorful personalities of its citizens.
In many ways, Verghese’s voice is similar to another great writer – that of John Irving. His ability to bring to life quirky characters while fleshing out complex ideas, his meandering plot which spans decades, and his probing into father/son relationships all made me think of Irving’s work. It is no wonder that I immediately became embroiled in the novel and did not want it to end. I was not surprised when in the acknowledgments at the end of the book Verghese gives a nod to Irving’s friendship and wisdom.
Cutting for Stone is one of those books which is impossible to put down. Here is a lush, emotional, intelligent and compelling novel written by an accomplished story teller. I loved that Verghese, a physician himself, wrote a novel about two generations of doctors and was able to capture the passion of medicine. By placing the story mostly in a small African village, Verghese is able to show that the physician’s greatest gift is not found in technology, but in his or her ability to provide comfort.
I loved this book and its characters (who felt like living, breathing people to me). I loved the journey. Abraham Verghese has written a gorgeous novel which deserves to be savored. Readers who love hefty family sagas in the style of John Irving, and are drawn to literary fiction will enjoy this book.