Cutting for Stone

Image of Cutting for Stone
Release Date: 
January 26, 2010
Vintage Books
Reviewed by: 

“This is a book to be read for the same joy one garners from listening to Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’—again and again.”

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is the tale of several lives, but in particular the narrator’s, Marion Stone, and the story of his identical twin brother, Shiva Stone.

The story spans five decades and three continents. As a narrator Marion reveals himself through his relationships with those who touch his life. These characters are rich, and his relationships with them are transformative. He is sensitive to the events that shape his life and the lives of those around him without soliciting pity from his reader but rather empathy.

One of the most compelling scenes in the story is the birth of Marion and Shiva. Through the eventful labor in Operating Theater 3 at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we meet new characters and learn more about those we already know—and how they react when they are pushed to the limits of their moral edges.

There is Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout Nun of the Diocesean Carmelite Order of Madras (India); Dr. Thomas Stone (an Englishman of nomadic surgical disposition); and those who have a role in bringing the twins into the world: Matron Hirst, Hema, Ghosh, and the Probationer. This is the seminal scene of Cutting for Stone and sets one up for a beautifully crafted story told by a master craftsman.

ShivaMarion, as Marion refers to himself and his brother, are in many ways inseparable, but their lives take very different paths. Marion is inspired by Ghosh to become a surgeon (though Ghosh did not start out as a surgeon himself); and Shiva inspires Hema, the obstetrician who brought them into the world—and the only mother they know—to try a new procedure at Missing Hospital to correct fistula in women, henceforth becoming the world authority on fistula surgery without being a surgeon himself.

What unites Marion to his late mother is a calendar print of Bernini’s sculpture of the “Ecstasy St. Teresa of Avila” that she hangs outside the autoclave of Operating Theater 3. As a child he often looks upon it. This artifact in Cutting for Stone has a spiritual and symbolic context in the story:

“The figure of St. Teresa lies limp, as if in a faint, her lips parted in ecstasy, her eyes unfocused, lids half closed. On either side of her, a voyeuristic chorus peers down from the prie-dieux. With a faint smile a boy more muscular than befits his youthful face, a boy angel stands over the saintly, voluptuous sister. The fingertips of his left hand lift the edge of the cloth covering her bosom. In his right hand he holds an arrow as delicately as a violinist holds a bow.”

There is no suspension of disbelief needed here. As Mr. Verghese takes us by the hand we believe from the start and thirst for more. He provides context about Ethiopia’s political and cultural history as well as weaving in many medical procedures, ethical issues, and actual instruments, making these accessible to the reader and relevant to the story.

Marion’s experience at times smashes against a paradox between the reason of the modern surgical environment around which he is raised juxtaposed with deeply held Ethiopian traditions, such as female circumcision, that he finds difficult to rationalize but doesn’t judge.

In Cutting the author is sensitive and thoughtful in his choice of words, sensual in the construction of his paragraphs. You feel as if you are sitting across from Nelly who is telling you all about Cathy and Heathcliff:

“Among the Calangate’s passengers was a young surgeon—a hawkeyed Englishman who was leaving the Indian Medical Service for better pastures. He was tall and strong, and his rugged features made him look hungry, yet he avoided the dining room. Sister Mary Joseph Praise had run into him, literally, on the second day of the voyage when she lost her footing on the wet metal stairs leading up from their quarters to the common room. The Englishman coming up behind her seized her where he could, in the region of her coccyx and her left rib cage. He righted her as if she were a little child. When she stuttered her thanks, he turned beet red; he was more flustered then she by this unexpected intimacy.”

When the twins are born, the very independent, free-spirited OB/GYN, Hema changes forever:

“By the time Hema rose, the house was suffused with the smell of boiling milk. She took to adding more and more milk to her morning coffee. Soon when Hema heard the cowbell, her mouth watered, just as if she were one of Professor Pavlov’s mutts. Her morning ‘coffee’ grew to two tumblers, and she had another two glasses during the day, more milk than coffee, loving the way the buttery flavor lingered on her tongue. Unlike the buffalo milk of her childhood, this milk was made so very tasty by the highland grass on which the cow fed.”

There is a pivotal love triangle in the story between ShivaMarion and the girl Genet who was raised with them, culminating at the end of the story and coming full circle to the foundation of ShivaMarion’s relationship to each other: Love.

Cutting for Stone illustrates that the common denominator uniting us all is our humanity, and that no political, religious, ethnic, cultural or geopolitical considerations can remove that humanity. It trumps all else.

Although Cutting for Stone was published in 2010, it is a timeless tale told in an authentic voice. At the time of this book’s printing Mr. Verghese is Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. No slouch. He also graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the most prestigious in the world with graduates and attendees such as Flannery O’Conner, Raymond Carver, T. C. Boyle, and Kurt Vonnegut.

This is a book to be read for the same joy one garners from listening to Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”—again and again.