Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is an elegantly written novel that is both a family epic and a tribute to the art of medicine and surgery.

I read Cutting for Stone as part of the 2021 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book with twins as characters. Cutting for Stone certainly fit the bill – one of the twins, Marion Stone, even narrated the story.

The novel begins with what Marion has been able to piece together about his parents. His mother was a nun and nurse at an Ethiopian hospital that would become a home to Marion and his identical twin, Shiva. His father was a brilliant surgeon in the same hospital. I was worried that the circumstances leading to the conception of the babies would be tawdry (a pregnant nun?), but it wasn’t.

In a long, grisly labor room scene, Sister Mary Joseph Praise loses her life and the devastated father of the babies, Thomas Stone, flees, abandoning the boys to be raised by the hospital’s two other doctors, Hema and Ghosh.

cutting for Stone

The twins grow up in a loving household, but the family’s harmony is temporarily disrupted by events like political coups, military crack downs, and even the angst of puberty. I thought the political themes of the novel were particularly interesting and illustrated how power can go unchecked in nondemocratic societies and how vulnerable this leaves citizens. It also explains how communism, with its promise of income redistribution, can get a toe hold in so many countries.

As they mature, the once inseparable twins develop their own, unique identities while still maintaining a strong, but battered, bond. Mentoring by their parents and spending a lot of time at the hospital has influenced them to pursue medicine, but in very different ways. “Medicine” was another well-developed theme that I really enjoyed. The author, a doctor himself, obviously has great reverence for medicine and for those who practice it with skill and compassion. The book is populated with decent physicians. It was refreshing. The author also goes into great detail about medical conditions and procedures – I now know more about how livers function than I ever wanted to know!

I also liked the pervasive spiritual theme in the story. Most of the characters believed in a higher power and would pray (sometimes to multiple gods) in times of trouble. The nuns translated their faith into service to the poor. And there were even some incidents depicted as signs from long-departed Ghosh and Sister Mary Joseph Praise. It gave the book a slightly mystical feel.

My only complaint is that, at 690 pages, it’s a bit too long and dragged in a few places. Or maybe I should blame my shrinking attention span.

Overall, I give Cutting for Stone an enthusiastic thumbs up. Strong, likable characters, vivid settings, and positive themes make this an excellent read. Thanks, Laine and Julia, for the recommendation!

Did you read a book with twins as characters this month? Tell us about it!

**Reminder – July’s challenge is to read a book by a French author. Lots of classics to choose from, but I need to do some research on contemporary authors. (and how is it already July?!)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

  1. Okay, I liked the book. Heck, maybe that’s not even a strong enough word to describe what I thought of it? Nope. It is. Liked not loved is the right description. If it were 150-200 pages shorter, I think it would have loved this book! Now I realize, that probably says a lot more about me than the book. Nevertheless, there were some descriptions and narratives that seemed to go on and on and on. Oh, and at times, I wasn’t sure if I was reading a book or studying for the MCAT. I understand that the author is a doctor/writer and I am duly impressed but for me the common layman, a little less surgical description would have been just fine. The good news is that if in a pinch and I’m called upon to operate on a liver, I’ll break out this book and get started. And the birth of the twins, really no way to condense that down say, oh, I don’t know, to less than 100 pages?! Okay, maybe it wasn’t that long but it sure seemed like it.
    On the other hand, there were lots of great themes and messages in the book. The characters were fantastic and although there were many, they were easy to keep straight. Also, so many GOOD people in this novel! Despite where they are and the poverty that they live in, they are full of love and compassion for their neighbors. I too, Michelle, enjoyed the political and historical themes that ran throughout the book. Learning about Ethiopia (even how to pronounce it correctly), its people and leaders, and its relationship with Eritrea was quite fascinating and informative. Also, the good of so many characters juxtaposed to the outright evil and malicious characters that kept popping up created a feeling of tension that must exist living in a place where you cannot trust your leadership and government. You mentioned the spiritual theme – while reading this book, I kept thinking of the prodigal son Bible story and the relationship between Marion and Shiva. So see? I did like it. Good choice for this month Michelle!

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  2. Hello, Michelle! This is a book I would never had found without you–and it is now my summer read! Unlike George (lol)–I love some good surgery scenes (I work for J&J on the medical device side). I truly appreciate the perspective of medicine in third-world settings, not only with the clinical adaptations, but the people working in the African “healthcare systems”. It is fascinating to compare aspects of worldwide healthcare, and appreciate both pros and cons of how the US approaches medicine and surgery vs. other countries. Separately–the writing is so vivid, it’s like you’re transported to that place and time, with a 360 degree view and feel of what is happening in each moment. Wow! Thank you for finding this gem!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robin! I love it when people like the books I recommend! You’re right about the writing – vivid is a great adjective for it. I’m pretty sure this is Abraham Verghese’s first novel, which makes it even more remarkable. Glad you like it, and given the length it just might last you all summer!

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  3. One of my all time favorite books and authors. I also loved reading The Tennis Partner and My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. As an aside, I just found your Blog by reading the Notre Dame Alumni Spotlight in the Echoes Newsletter. I am amazed by your story. I am a 1976 Graduate of Notre Dame from Southern California and just moved to the Brookside area of KCMO last year. So I am your neighbor! I’m reaching out to see if you would like any help or visits or anything. I’ve been involved with the Notre Dame Women’s Alumni Group Book Club for about 18 months and am looking forward to reading your book reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christine! Nice to meet you! I live in Brookside, too (I can’t remember if I mentioned that in the ND piece). We’re a St. Peter’s family. A good friend of mine (also Brookside / St. Peter’s) might have been in your class at Notre Dame. I’ll email you when I figure it out. Anyway, welcome to the neighborhood!

      And thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll definitely check them out. Plus, I’m going to see what the alumni group is reading these days.

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