Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone is set primarily in Ethiopia. It’s long, with many characters and much detail. While reading it I found myself thinking about A Fine Balance, another long, complex novel set in an exotic foreign country (India) with a lot to keep track of. It suffers by comparison. It is well written and impressive to a degree, and it held my interest at least as much as the average book of its kind, but it is never as emotionally impactful or morally thought-provoking as A Fine Balance.

Thomas Stone is a brilliant but socially awkward surgeon working at a Catholic hospital (which sounds more like a small clinic) in Ethiopia in the 1950s. Shy nun from India Sister Mary Joseph Praise comes to work as a nurse at the hospital. Stone and Praise awaken each other emotionally, and maybe a little more than emotionally, since Praise soon ends up pregnant.

She gives birth to twins in a terrible delivery where it’s touch and go all the way if she or either of the infants will even survive. Stone freaks out and soon disappears.

The twins are conjoined at the head, but once they are successfully separated, they do indeed survive. The mother does not.

They grow up totally in tune with each other to that near-supernatural degree you sometimes hear about with twins, if not a little more so.

One is Marion, the narrator of the book, mostly a likable guy, a positive character. The other is Shiva, a borderline autistic type, coldly rational, rarely emotional, mostly uninterested in, if not unaware of, how others perceive him. Although intelligence, non-conformity, and self-directedness are all qualities I usually admire and try to cultivate in myself, I found him mostly unpleasant.

With their birth parents unavailable or unwilling to raise the twins, that job falls to two other physicians at the hospital, both of whom are also immigrants from India. Dr. Abhi Ghosh is my clear favorite character in the book—my only complaint would be that he’s unrealistically perfect—a humane, wise, principled man capable of deep love. He is smitten with his accidental co-parent Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, an almost as positive character on the inside, though with a hard exterior that can make her something of a bitch at times.

The twins develop in significantly different ways, though they do have in common that they both end up pursuing careers in medicine, with much success.

The author does a decent job capturing the culture, politics, etc. of Ethiopia so as to make it interesting for a reader. For that matter, the same can be said of his treatment of the American health care system, for instance the way certain less desirable jobs at certain less desirable places become natural landing spots for foreign doctors wanting to practice in the U.S.

One thing I was conscious of reading the book is that I arguably have a moral blind spot about one of its central issues. Thomas Stone is regarded as a great villain in the story by just about all the characters who know that he disappeared when his (probably) sons were born. The narrator Marion especially has trouble fathoming what kind of a person could have irresponsibly wronged him and his brother so severely.

Viscerally I just didn’t feel that. The guy had a complete emotional breakdown, felt he could only recover by getting away, and, it turns out, led a very beneficial rest of his life. The twins were left in the care of people who almost certainly were better able to raise them than Stone as a single father would have been.

Maybe that doesn’t qualify him for sainthood, but I just don’t see him as such a terrible person. I found him more sympathetic than not as a character. I didn’t feel more condemnatory toward him than I would have your run of the mill person who gives up their baby for adoption.

But like I say, that may simply be evidence that I don’t give enough moral weight to this issue in general. I think I’ve always been a little hesitant about being too harsh on the “deadbeat dad” or “absent father” types, because I’m not that confident what I would do in their shoes and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

As a male, and as one who actually was lucky enough to have sex with a few people when I was younger, I know what it’s like to take the risk that in some one night stand type situation with someone you have zero intention to have a future with, birth control may fail, they may inexplicably opt not to have an abortion, and all of a sudden you’re obligated to perform the functions of a father, or at the very least pay enormous sums of money (enormous to someone who was always on the edge financially the way I was) over the course of 18 years.

Maybe it’s only a 1% chance or less on any given occasion, but had I lost that lottery, what would I have done? Had it been possible to slip away scot-free and never have to deal with it, would I have done so?

Actually there’s a pretty good chance I would have. I don’t know. But I suppose I’ve always felt a little hesitant to bash those who decided against a sexless life, yet were unwilling to pay a massive penalty when they found themselves in the highly unlucky circumstance of unintentionally getting someone pregnant.

A small complaint about the book would be that it’s one of those novels with too many unlikely events and coincidences. This is worst toward the end of the book, when the mood becomes increasingly melodramatic as the author seemingly tries to cram in all the action, heroism, surprises, and tearjerker moments he thinks a book of this length requires.

I feel like Cutting for Stone was worth reading, but it isn’t one that I got a great deal out of or recommend with much enthusiasm. A quite mild thumbs up is about the best I can offer.

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