Thursday, November 13, 2014

The ups and downs of a medical family

Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone is a novel that spans three continents, two generations, and multiple revolutions.  It's set mostly in Ethiopia and the United States, though in both countries, the majority of the action takes place in hospitals that cater to the poor.  The plot is pretty hard to summarize, so I'll share the short but sweet description from the book:

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. 

Moving from Addis Ababa to New York City and back again, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, medicine and ordinary miracles--and two brothers whose fates are forever intertwined.

Medicine is central to this novel, and there are a lot of detailed and graphic descriptions of injuries, maladies, and surgeries.  These were very difficult for me to listen to via audiobook, and I admit I fast-forwarded through many of those procedures.  It's hard to listen to a narrator speak dispassionately about incisions being made, blood pooling on the floor, and organs failing.  That said, I thought about both my father and brother while reading this book.  Both of them are physicians, and Verghese's clear knowledge of medicine, and his great empathy for patients and his obvious regard for the ethical responsibilities that doctors have towards their patients really stood out to me.  So often, now, we hear about how modern healthcare has made it difficult for physicians to connect with their patients.  They have so much paperwork to fill out, so many procedures to do, so much fear of being sued, that the relationship can often feel more combative or tense than healing.  But many doctors still care deeply for their patients.  My father has been practicing for many years now and has seen multiple generations of the same family come through his office.  It struck a chord to read a book that focused so much on the deep, lasting and positive impact that doctors have on so many lives.

I really enjoyed reading about hospital life, the camaraderie between the doctors, the responsibility to do no harm, the need to do extraordinary work with very limited resources.  I also loved some of the characters in this story, particularly Hema and Ghosh.  Hema and Ghosh adopt Marion and Shiva at birth, and the two of them are such strong, caring, and wonderful people.  I loved their marriage, which was based on such a strong foundation of friendship.  When they married, they agreed to renew their marriage contract every year, and each year, they go out celebrating and Ghosh proposes again.  The two doctors are also wonderful mentors to the twins, and the whole family interaction is great to read.

That said, I didn't much care for the two central plots of the novel - first, the mystery surrounding the Stone brothers' father, Thomas Stone; and second, the often toxic relationship between Marion and the "love of his life," Gennet.  I liked Thomas Stone, though he wasn't a character one got to know very well.  But he wasn't around that often at all, and so building an entire story around him and his abandonment was difficult to pull off.  I just didn't care about the tension between Thomas Stone and Marion Stone.  I cared more about how they both interacted with their patients.  I cared even less for the drama around Gennet, Marion's childhood friend and the girl he decided he was in love with (why, I don't know).  She was only ever described to us by Marion, and she didn't come into her own.  There was also a horrible scene in which Marion took advantage of Gennet because he saw himself as a "victim," and I just couldn't stomach it, and pretty much lost all respect for Marion after that.  He never seemed to even consider that he treated her badly, only saw how she was unkind to him.  There was no self-examination, and I hated that.  For someone that was supposed to be compassionate and kind towards those he loved and cared for, he was not at all compassionate or kind towards Gennet, only seeing her as an object for what he wanted for himself.

Overall, this book was a mixed bag for me.  While I liked the medical side of it, I didn't care much for the family drama.


  1. I know what you mean about listening to medical procedures. Feel the same about sex scenes, although I don't consider myself a prude.

    This book was recommended to me by two different people in my new office when they know I loved to read, so it was already under my radar.

  2. I recently finished reading Cutting for Stone and will be posting about it soon. Mostly ranting! I agree with you that the Gennet storyline was quite problematic. Plus I just got annoyed at the amount of drama and coincidences.

  3. I have this one on the to-read shelves (yes I said shelves..plural) but I just haven't yet been in the mood to read it.

  4. I read this one and pretty much liked the same things and disliked the same things as you. I couldn't stand the Gennet/Shiva/Marion plotline. I did like the insight into Ethiopian life though and loved the story of Thomas and sister Mary on their journey from Madras to Ethiopia.


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