Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Cutting for Stone

My wife is currently reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese after hearing my very favorable recommendation, so there will be no spoilers in this review. Instead I will focus on the book’s very appropriate title.

For those with very short attention spans, let me start with the bottom line. In my opinion, this is an excellent book, with very unusual, but believable characters interacting in a very unusual setting. So, what’s it all about?

You won’t find this description on the back cover of the paperback copy that I just finished reading (yes, Jodie, you selected it at the airport bookstore). From Abraham Verghese’s website:

The story is a riveting saga of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, born of a tragic union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and their father's disappearance, and bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. But it's love, not politics - their passion for the same woman - that will tear them apart and force Marion to flee his homeland and make his way to America, finding refuge in his work at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him, wreaking havoc and destruction, Marion has to entrust his life to the two men he has trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this review will focus on the title of the book - Cutting for Stone. After reading the above description of the book, you can quickly see the innocent first meaning of the title. Surgeons, by profession, cut. And Stone is the family name of the book’s protagonist.

But there’s a deeper meaning. The New York Times pretty unfavorable review from 2009 states:
"I will not cut for stone,” runs the text of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”

Reviewer Erica Wagner states that “until the reader comes across the oath, well into the novel, the title may seem pleasing to the ear but puzzling to the mind: it tries to do too many jobs at once. It neither suggests the book’s action … nor evokes its mood.”

Sorry, but I disagree.

As noted in the Sunday Times review of Cutting for Stone, Verghese takes the phrase from the Hippocratic oath, ’I will not cut for stone’, as “the inspiration for a moving saga of medicine and family that spans three continents and five decades. In antiquity, ‘cutting for stone’ - operating to remove bladder stones - was often fatal, but even then there were ‘specialists in this art’ to whom a physician would defer. Much of Verghese’s novel meditates on this separate breed, the surgeon, on whose skill so many lives depend.”

Abraham Verghese writes in the acknowledgments of his novel that it was entirely a work of fiction. The author was born in 1955 of Indian parents who were teachers in Ethiopia. He began his medical training in Addis Ababa but did his residency at the less popular hospitals in the U.S. His work as an orderly caring for terminal AIDS patients became the basis for his first book, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story. His second best-selling book, The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss, tells about his friend and tennis partner's struggle with addiction. Cutting for Stone is his first novel.

As per his website, Verghese “continues to emphasize the importance of bedside medicine and physical examination in a time in medicine when the use of advanced technology frequently results in the patient in the bed having less attention than the patient data in the computer.”

Cutting for Stone
gives the reader a chance to see that entering medicine is a “passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking.”

In conclusion, I will note the review that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, which I think sums it up:

“An epic tale about love, abandonment, betrayal and redemption, Abraham Verghese's first novel, Cutting for Stone, is a masterpiece of traditional storytelling. Not a word is wasted in this larger-than-life tome, a saga that spans three countries and six decades.”

Buy Cutting for Stone and read it now!

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