Sunday, May 6, 2012


Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese
(2009 Alfred A. Knopf, 560 pages)

A very long book about a medical practice in a village in Ethiopia suggests boredom. In fact, this lovingly written novel is engaging, truthful and inspirational. The surface story is of conjoined twin brothers, Marion and Shiva, whose mother, a nun,  dies in childbirth at the hands of their otherwise brilliant surgeon father, Thomas Stone. The events occur in a mission hospital that the Ethiopians call "Missing" due to the difficulty of pronouncing the word in their tongue.
The name Stone, and the title of the book derive from the Hippocratic Oath, which reads in part:
"I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners (specialists in this art). "

Stone abandons the Mission Hospital the day of the birth, and the boys, who are physically separated from their joined heads at the time of their birth, grow to be doctors in their own right. Marion, the firstborn, achieves academic success through constant self-discipline and effort. Marion is a prodigy who has a photographic memory, and gains international fame for his medical work without attending medical school.

The boys are raised by a male and female doctor at Missing, Ghosh and Hema. Ghosh gently guides Marion into the practice of surgery, and Shiva becomes a specialist in gynecology through Hema.

The  pages of the novel are filled with detailed and moving descriptions of Ethiopia, including the flowers, plants and trees, the customs of the people, the cuisine, and the culture of  village and  city life. The recent history of that land is interwoven into the plot. But all of this is an exquisite backdrop to the masterful descriptions of the nuanced thoughts and feelings of Marion, Shiva, Ghosh and Hema. The treatment of love, jealousy and sexuality in the book is sensitive and convincing. The numerous depictions of surgery are spellbinding, as one would expect from an author who is a doctor trained in Ethiopia, India and the United States, and is a professor of medicine at Stanford University.

A reader who will take the time to experience this broad narrative will be rewarded with not only an enchanting and poignant story that is filled with emotional wisdom, but also a fascinating look inside our amazing human bodies, that are both resilient and fragile.

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