I’ve heard a lot of good things about Cutting For Stone, but it turns out I wasn’t as enthused as most other folks. Abraham Verghese combines a pretty decent story with some great characters and excellent description that brings places alive. On the bad side, the exposition is overdone toward the beginning (where I was bored) and underdone toward the end (where I felt rushed along). I also repeatedly kept thinking
people really think like that? in response to some some of the character’s stated motivations.
The narrator is Marion Praise Stone, the illegitimate son of a Catholic nun and a mission surgeon living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Cutting For Stone begins with Marion’s parents’ journey from India (where both grew up) to Ethiopia where they will join a mission hospital (named Missing in the local dialect’s pronunciation of Mission). Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies giving birth to Marion and his twin Shiva, and their father Thomas Stone is so traumatized by the experience that he disappears never to return. Missing doctors K. Hemlatha (
Hema) and Ghosh (also Indian expatriates) raise the two boys.
While this is nominally the story of Marion Stone, Ghosh and Hema more or less get equal treatment as do Sister Praise and Thomas Stone for the first 150 pages. In fact, Marion Stone isn’t even born until page 98 (out of 536 pages). This really dragged. For instance, there’s an extended section about Thomas Stone amputating his own infected index finger. Mr. Verghese did a lot to build up Thomas Stone’s character and that did not fit with his absence from his sons’ lives.
What’s lacking in pacing is made up by excellent exposition. I don’t really know how to talk about it so I’ll just give an example:
No one but Ghosh dared touch the Koot. Cables ran from its giant rectifier to the Coolidge tube, which sat on a rail and could be moved this way and that. He worked the dials and voltage levers until a spark leaped across the two brass conductors, producing a thunderclap. The fiery display had caused pone paralyzed patient to leap off the stretcher and run for his life; Ghosh called that the Sturm und Drang cure. He was the Koot’s keeper, repairing it, babying it so that three decades after the company went under, the Koot was still operational. Using the fluoroscopy screen, he studied the dancing hears, or else he defined exactly where a cavity in the lung resided. By pushing on the belly he could establish whether a tumor was fixed to the bowel or abutted on the spleen. In the early years he hadn’t bothered with the lead-lined gloves, or a lead apron for that matter. The skin of his probing, intelligent hands paid a visible price.
Despite nearly putting the book down 50, 100, and 150 pages in, I stuck through it and ended up liking it.