Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Title: Cutting for Stone
Author: Abraham Verghese
Genre: Contemporary fiction, historical fiction
Publisher: Vintage Books, 2009
Source: Gift from my father-in-law

Marion and Shiva Stone are the twin sons of Thomas Stone, an amazingly gifted but asocial surgeon, and Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful nun with a healer's touch. History, misunderstanding, and one devious woman conspire to both connect and sever the unique relationship Marion and Shiva share as surgeons, brothers, and fetuses that once shared a womb.

I feel as if that summary is inadequate. I know many people copy and paste their summaries from GoodReads, but to me writing my summaries is a small way for me to sum up the book and what the plot told me on my terms. However, this is difficult to do with Cutting For Stone. The story is both eventful and powerful, but it unfolds gradually, with many of the surprises and unexpected outcomes that assault us in our own lives. In some ways, the book felt episodic to me - much of the first few hundred pages described events of Marion and Shiva's lives, beginning with their parents' relationship and continuing through childhood to their separate decisions in adulthood. However, all the bizarre elements and seemingly isolated incidents of Marion and Shiva's lives come together in an astounding climax that I couldn't believe. Each event in their childhood came to a head in the final events of the book, and I was vastly impressed with Verghese's skill in weaving these elements together. In the last few pages of the book, Marion reflects, "The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not."

The characters of this book were well realized. Marion, the voice of the story, is a romantic, driven by love for Genet, the daughter of one of the family's servants, and his admiration for Ghosh, his adoptive father and a skilled surgeon. Shiva is an eccentric and idiosyncratic boy that grows into an odd but giving and skilled man. Genet is an oversexed and thoughtless flirt, Hema a motherly medical machine, and Stone a heartbreaking, lost character, unable to escape from his demons when he cannot save the woman he loves. However, out of this sea of individually drawn lives, my favorite is without a doubt the homely and talented Ghosh, a man whose sheer passion for medicine ignites the fire in Marion's own soul. His wisdom, patience, and capacity for forgiveness coupled with his very human shortcomings manages to hold the rest of the characters together, despite their occasional tendency to destroy each others' lives.

I also found the writing very interesting. Verghese is a physician, and he describes the many medical procedures in this book in high detail. The book is definitely not for a weak-stomached reader. While the writing is not poetic in the manner of glimmering sunlight and pretty colors, the realism and power with which Verghese paints his scenes gives the words a harsh beauty. The ruthlessness of a country in civil turmoil adds more grittiness to the book. It isn't always a beautiful picture but it is compelling.

One little element that particularly endeared this book to me was when the twins are first born and Hema and Ghosh must stay up all night to make sure they keep breathing. In boredom, and trying to stay awake, Ghosh picks up a leather bound book and starts reading through them, beginning a life-long love of literature that is passed on to his children. I think writers can't help putting in bookish elements, either because they love books so much or as a sly, subliminal sales tactic.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is grimy and abounds with every body fluid that exists. However, the story will move you and the characters will win your heart, even as they make you wonder what on earth they were thinking. This is a heavy book, but one that is worth the 657 pages.
4 stars

Neuro notes: While never explicitly diagnosed, I think Shiva has Asperger's syndrome. His behaviors were a great example of the lack of social awareness and single-minded drivenness of an Asperger's patient. I also thought Verghese did an excellent job of bringing out the humanity in Shiva. Despite the fact that he didn't perceive emotions in a typical way or subscribe to many social conventions, he was still capable of a great amount of love.


  1. I had to look to see what your chunkster challenge was. I really liked this book and it didn't feel that long, so I was surprised to see it was 657 pages. I love a good medical drama and I am not faint of heart. :) I loved your review, and reading it made me remember how much I wanted to wring Genet's neck. I think your diagnosis of Shiva is right on, who needs nursing school?

  2. What a nice review of a book I loved! Honestly, I think Cutting for Stone may be the best book published in the last 5 years. I've met the author a couple of times and he's also wonderful--most of my staff ended up smitten with him when he left our bookstore.

  3. I ended up really liking this book, but there was a time near the beginning where I thought: get an editor! But by the end I was a supporter! Ghosh and Hema are definitely my favorite characters, people I would love to know in real life

  4. I won a copy of this from Vintage Anchor a few months ago; however, it's been sitting on a shelf because it seemed like a heavy read and was somewhat daunting. The storyline seemed original and your review reemphasizes the fact. I am looking forward to getting into and sharing my thoughts with you, Lorren. Thanks! You are on fire, btw! Studying AND getting reading done- putting us all the shame! :) Enjoy your weekend!

  5. Loved your review! I recently finished reading this and have to yet review it for my blog.. It is hard to say who my favorite characters were but I think I loved Ghosh, Matron, and Tsige.


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