March’s Doorstopper: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

I’m squeaking in here on the 31st with the doorstopper I’ve been reading all month. I started Cutting for Stone in an odd situation on the 1st: We’d attempted to go to France that morning but were foiled by a fatal engine failure en route to the ferry terminal, so were riding in the cab of a recovery vehicle that was taking us and our car home. My poor husband sat beside the driver, trying to make laddish small talk about cars, while I wedged myself by the window and got lost in the early pages of Indian-American doctor Abraham Verghese’s saga of twins Marion and Shiva, born of an unlikely union between an Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa in 1954.

What with the flashbacks and the traumatic labor, it takes narrator Marion over 100 pages to get born. That might seem like a Tristram Shandy degree of circumlocution, but there was nary a moment when my interest flagged during this book’s 50-year journey with a medical family starting in a country I knew nothing about. I was reminded of Midnight’s Children, in that the twin brothers are born loosely conjoined at the head and ever after have a somewhat mystical connection, understanding each other’s thoughts even when they’re continents apart.

When Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies in childbirth and Stone absconds, the twins are raised by the hospital’s blunt obstetrician, Hema, and her husband, a surgeon named Ghosh. Both brothers follow their adoptive parents into medicine and gain knowledge of genitourinary matters. We observe a vasectomy, a breech birth, a C-section, and the aftermath of female genital mutilation. While Marion relocates to an inner-city New York hospital, Shiva stays in Ethiopia and becomes a world expert on vaginal fistulas. The novel I kept thinking about was The Cider House Rules, which is primarily about orphans and obstetrics, and I was smugly confirmed by finding Verghese’s thanks to his friend John Irving in the acknowledgments.

Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background, with Verghese giving a bystander’s view of the military coup against the Emperor and the rise of the Eritrean liberation movement. Like Marion, the author is an Indian doctor who came of age in Ethiopia, a country he describes as a “juxtaposition of culture and brutality, this molding of the new out of the crucible of primeval mud.” Marion’s experiences in New York City and Boston then add on the immigrant’s perspective on life in the West in the 1980s onwards.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink predicted long ago that I’d love this, and she was right. Of course I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures, such as an early live-donor liver transplant (this was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2009), but that wasn’t all that made Cutting for Stone such a winner for me. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories in which coincidences abound (“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not”), minor characters have heroic roles to play, and humor and tragedy balance each other out, if ever so narrowly. (Besides Irving, think of books like The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.) What I’m saying, as I strive to finish this inadequate review in the last hour of the last day of the month, is that this was just my sort of thing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it might be yours, too.

Favorite lines:

Hema: “The Hippocratic oath is if you are sitting in London and drinking tea. No such oaths here in the jungle. I know my obligations.”

“Doubt is a first cousin to faith”

“A childhood at Missing imparted lessons about resilience, about fortitude, and about the fragility of life. I knew better than most children how little separate the world of health from that of disease, living flesh from the icy touch of the dead, the solid ground from treacherous bog.”

Page count: 667

My rating:


Next month: Since Easter falls in April and I’ve been wanting to read it for ages anyway, I’ve picked out The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas to start tomorrow.

15 responses

  1. Carolyn anthony | Reply

    5 Stars! Wow! High praise indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We’re in complete agreement about this one. Compassion, humanity and brilliant storytelling which taught me a great deal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m now keen to read Verghese’s memoir of being a doctor in a small American town during the AIDS crisis.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That does sound tempting.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard so much about this and have never been tempted to pick it up, but the Dickensian comparison is pretty promising…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it’s somewhat lazy of me to use ‘Dickensian’ as shorthand, but to do so helpfully encompasses in one word things like a sprawling narrative with various subplots plus lots of coincidences and unlikely encounters, minor characters with delightful names and quirks, a social conscience, the search for parental origins, etc. I think this would also be of a piece with works by Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth (though I’ve not read the latter’s fiction).


      1. No, it’s totally useful – and indeed a descriptor that seems often used of Mistry and Seth too.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so glad you liked it! I remember struggling to write about it, too. What could I say to convey all the good things about this book? I think, in the end, I made a list. Something I resort to when I can’t seem to string my sentences together. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like doing lists sometimes! I was aware that there was so much I didn’t touch on, namely the brothers’ relationship with Genet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I stayed away from that in my review, too. Thinking about it makes me sad!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. “and I was smugly confirmed by finding Verghese’s thanks to his friend John Irving in the acknowledgments.” – Yesssss! You win!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always read the acknowledgements — you never know what little facts you’ll discover!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat […]


  7. […] Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of […]


  8. […] American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld East of Eden by John Steinbeck The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese The Paying Guests by Sarah […]


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