Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review: Cutting for Stone

Author: Abraham Verghese
Format: audio 18 discs (approx 24 hrs), 688 pages trade paperback
Narrator: Sunil Malhotra
Characters: Marion and Shiva Stone
Subject: practice of medicine
Setting: Addis Ababa Ethiopia, New York
Genre: fictional narrative memoir
Source: audio: Public library; print - my own copy
Challenge: Books from my shelves, TBR, audio, support your local library

I can't believe it took me three tries to read this book.  Late last autumn, I began listening to the audio, but found it difficult going.  It wasn't the accent of the narrator---I found that charming and easy to understand.  It wasn't the writing--that was clear and moved along at a good clip.  It just seemed that the story didn't hold my interest, and it seemed like it was going to be exceptionally long.  Then I got the print copy from the library, and tried reading it.  Again, I found myself unable to get past the first 100 or so pages.  So I put it aside, vowing to try again later.

Two weeks ago I noticed one of our local libraries was having a group discussion of this next week, so I thought  perhaps having some other insights might help me get through it.  I dutifully began listening to the audio again thinking I'd be able to pick up where I left off, but found I had to go back to the beginning. (At least, thought I, even if I can't finish it again, I'll be able to participate in some of the chat.)

This time however, after one hour, I was so hooked, I went to Amazon and ordered myself a copy to come next day air.  I finished it four days later, having both listened and then re-read the text. I did not want it to end.  I LOVED THIS BOOK.

Cutting with Stone is a superbly written, beautifully narrated story of the lives of Marion and Shiva Stone, born identical conjoined twins in a hospital in Ethopia; they were separated at birth.  Their mother, who died giving birth, was an Indian Carmelite nun who worked as a surgical nurse at the hospital where they were born.  Their father, an Indian born Englishman, Thomas Stone, was the hospital's only surgeon who botched the C-section he was called to perform because the obstetrician was out of town.  Dad disappears hours after the birth, unable to deal with a pregnancy he claimed to know nothing about and the death of his beloved Sister Mary Joseph Praise.

The orphaned twins were adopted and raised by two doctors at the hospital, Hema (the obstetrician) and Ghosh (the internist turned surgeon).  There was an entire staff of surrogate parents to help in raising the boys.  Medicine and its practice, including surgery was normal dinner conversation in the household.  It was small wonder both grew to become doctors.

We are involved in the coups and political unrest in Ethiopia during the second half of the 20th century including the arrest and imprisonment of Ghosh, and the twins' later dealings with a rogue army bandit who threatens to kill them; we watch as the humble hospital in Addis Ababa continues to care for a diverse group of patrons, from the emperor's family to the poorest of the poor, with little funding and often crudely fashioned homemade instruments. We are given broad but specific (and sometimes gory) details of medical procedures in language the layman can understand, even though the amount of detail sometimes slows down the story.  We watch as the boys mature, learn to dance, quote Shakespeare, and learn the art as well as the science of medicine from their parents.  We see one of them fall hopelessly in love and then see one betray the other.

When Marion leaves to go to America, we are made brutally aware of the differences in medical practice in the two countries.  It's not that the two countries have doctors of different abilities making the difference, rather it is the difference in resources and expectations that is vibrantly portrayed.  Marion's residency in surgery at a hospital in New York eventually brings him face to face with his biological father and ultimately leads to history making and life changing experiences for all the family.

This book is long.  It is 18 discs on audio (almost 24 hours of extremely well narrated story read by Sunil Malhotra) and 688 pages in print. It is difficult to do it justice in a review because, although written as a fictional narrative memoir, it is a novel with a spectacular ending that deserves not to be spoiled. Forget about my abortive initial attempts (blame it on the weather or something) it is a story that is engrossing, exciting, appealing, easy to read and extremely difficult to put down.  It is also one that I will want to read again and again.  In both its print and its audio versions it is a story not soon to be forgotten.  It is simply one of the best books I've ever read.


  1. I am surprised that it took you 3 tries to fall in love with this book. I did love it.

  2. gosh, I am surprised the book is that long. I didn't really notice that when IO read it.
    but I do agree it is a great book.

  3. If you enjoy wonderful prose, if you like to be transported to an earlier time in a very different locale, if you value "right-on" political analysis, if you love wonderfully-crafted character development, then "Cutting"is the book for you this summer. Verghese is my new gold standard of fiction.


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