Reading Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone feels at times like watching a PBS live surgery show. In an Ethiopian operating theatre, twin boys Marion and Shiva are being born. With no other surgeons to be found, the father, Dr. Thomas Stone, is forced to cut the children from their ailing mother.
Mary is a nun and until this moment, has kept the pregnancy a secret from the world, and from Thomas. Overcome with emotion, Thomas is unable to save her life. Afterwards, he is unable to acknowledge his children. In disgrace over so many exposed transgressions, he flees the hospital and the country.
Marion and Shiva are adopted by two other surgeons working at the hospital. It’s not surprising when they grow up to become surgeons themselves. The plot swells and moves inexorably forward to a point where Thomas and the twins cross paths again.
Verghese is a physician and professor of medicine at Stanford University and clearly he loves his profession. This book contains literally hundreds of pages of surgical procedures. For many, including the doctor who recommended this book, the lengthy and varied surgeries undoubtedly make the work fascinating.
Even though my father, sister and brother are doctors, I’m not that interested in bodily mechanics. And if you’re not enthralled by descriptions of cutting, snipping and cinching, you may find the lengthy operations serve not to heighten drama in Cutting for Stone, but to stall it. All the same, there is much in the book for the more metaphysically-minded.
Verghese raises complex questions. Should a surgeon think of patients as only flesh and blood to keep emotions at bay while working?
Or, is it empathy that drives a surgeon to perform at his or her peak? Are surgeons god-like in their abilities to save lives? Or are they merely perpetuating the modern-day notion that we can somehow cheat death?
Cutting for Stone is set in Ethiopia during a time of much unrest. It’s not only surgeons who determine who will live and who will die. Verghese reminds us that though we may look after our health, we never know what tomorrow will bring. We can only deal with events as they arise, as best we can.
Thanks again to the reader who recommended this novel. Reading books I may not have chosen on my own is one of the great pleasures of being in a book club.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton. email@example.com