Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese book review

Abraham Verghese’s powerful novel combines a fascinating setting with enthralling narrative to create a truly powerful read.

Submitted by on Sunday, 2 October 2011

(C) Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

You will probably know by now that I am always on the lookout for a new book. Luckily for me, I have a flatmate who regularly brings back books that sit on our bookshelf in the living room, and that I end up reading before she does. When she came back with this latest book, she said she had been told that it was amazing and that we wouldn’t be able to stop reading it. She couldn’t have been more right! About the author

Abraham Verghese is Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Sounds surprising, but when you start to read the novel his background will become quite apparent. Verghese is of Indian origin, but grew up in Ethiopia near Addis Ababa. Following medical training there, he then moved to the US to further his studies and become a resident. He first started writing books related to his work as an orderly, caring for terminal AIDS patients. He later pursued this hobby by studying at the Iowa Writer’s Worksop and earning a Master of Fine Arts degree. His first novel, Cutting for Stone, is now on several bestselling booklists.

About the book

This book is easily one of the most powerful books I have read. It tells the story of twins Shiva and Marion, or ShivaMarion, conjoined but separated at birth, sealing their destinies. Shiva and Marion are the result of an unlikely union between a nun Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and a doctor Thomas Stone. In fact, nobody, not even Thomas Stone, has any idea how Sister Mary Joseph Praise could have been pregnant in the first place.

As we witness the birth of the twins, and consequently her death, we wonder whether this might not be the story of the next virgin Mary. Sister Mary and Doctor Thomas Stone meet on a boat travelling from India to Africa. As Thomas falls ill, Sister Mary nurses him back to life, creating between them an inexplicable and unspoken bond. Later, they both end up working at the same hospital, in complete harmony, both knowing the other so well not only in their jobs but also as close friends.

When Shiva and Marion are born, their arrival completely disrupts life at Missing hospital, where Sister Mary and Thomas work. Utterly depressed by Sister Mary’s death, Thomas leaves the hospital without one look back, despising the children that killed the woman he loved. Marion and Shiva are left to be brought up by Hema, the hospital’s gynaecologist, and Ghosh, the hospital’s other doctor.

In fact, Shiva and Marion are given a beautiful life and a loving family by Hema, Ghosh and their surrounding colleagues, friends and housekeepers. Shiva and Marion are very close, but nonetheless have their differences with Shiva being slightly socially unaware, and Marion being the opposite. Little by little, their differences will separate them, as will their understanding of, and approach to life. Marion ends up realising that his brother cannot really understand him and that they must lead separate lives.

The book is punctuated by tragedy, starting with the death of Sister Mary Joseph Praise and the departure of Thomas Stone. Nonetheless, it is not depressing but rather moving, as we become so involved with the lives of the main characters: Hema, Ghosh, Shiva and Marion.

The book has many qualities that make it exceptionally interesting, alongside the very powerful story that is told. For a start, it is based in Ethiopia, a country probably not very well known to the majority of readers. Verghese manages to plunge us into its culture, as well as giving us a historical and political background to the country that is very interesting.

As Verghese is a doctor, this transpires in the book in various ways, the first being that practically all his main characters are doctors or surgeons. This means that many medical events take place in the book, and are described in great detail. Though it can sometimes be a little too detailed, it also makes for very interesting reading as we learn the technical names of body parts, operations, and medical terms. When patients are operated on, we almost feel as if we are in the operating room with them as the details given by Verghese are so good.

Finally, he also interchanges the narrators in the first part of the book, which makes for interesting reading. As we start following Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s travels, we then follow Hema, then Ghosh, and finally Marion who takes on the narration for the rest of the book. This changing of narrators allows us to benefit from several different perspectives of the same story and situation.

The book is a story of love, of death, of betrayal, and of medicine. It is beautiful, powerful, and tragic. As soon as I had started the first pages, I found I couldn’t stop reading until the very end. As I reached the last few chapters, I found myself crying because the situation and the way in which it was described was so emotional. A book that can make you cry is definitely a powerful one, and I have not happened upon many.

I was so impressed by this book, I strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a new read, regardless of your usual preferences. This book will blow you away.