Cutting For Stone reminds me a lot of John Irving. Abraham Verghese (nonfiction books My Own Country and The Tennis Partner) debut novel is wandering, densely plotted, fifty year story one family set against the turmoil of Ethiopia's past half-century (though the author admits, for the book, he alters the chronology). Like Irving, the author populates his novel with characters that are rich, forthright and deceitful. And Verghese tinged the book with a sense of magic, and coincidences which happens all the time in Irving’s books. Good or bad, they seem to be unapologetic about it, though
Cutting for Stone –a phrase taken from the Hippocratic oath- is about twin boys, Marion and Shiva, who were born joined at the head, in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa in1954. Their mother, a nun from Madras, does not survive the birth. Their father, a British surgeon called Thomas Stone, cannot bear the loss and flees, so Marion and Shiva are raised by two Indian doctors, Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, a forceful woman known as Hema, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, at times skittish man who only lives to see the positive aspects of life. They grow up at Missing Hospital (“Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like ‘Missing.’ ”) and eventually both become surgeons.
The books comes alive in the detail of Addis Ababa, with their streets filled shops, with the smells, the colors that are part of Marion and Shiva’s growing up. When the novel shifts three quarter of the way to America, the author brings alive and evokes perfectly the late 1970’s through mid-1980s New York.
Still, the book is a bit overlong and you realize, like many authors, they love their characters so much they have a tendency to wring everything from them –even minor characters are given a full backstory. It stops the book from moving forward, as does the boy’s father Thomas, who eventually (through the magic of coincidence again) comes back into their lives. Yet the problem is, because he’s gone from more than half the book, his arrival and eventual family resolution seems a bit too easy –I got the feeling there should have been more there. As well as for Marion’s one true love, childhood friend Genet (the daughter of his nanny). She comes and goes like a hot breeze, but every time she’s around, all she brings a hurricane of trouble. She’s a bit two dimensional and I ponder –after all the trouble she caused- why anyone would still pine after her the way Marion does.
I liked it despite some flaws. I found it interesting, as well, the way Verghese was able to write, with great detail, a lot of medical procedures, and make them interesting and not dry and all static like. John Irving has a tendency to do this as well.