Vacation Reading No. 1 – “Cutting the Stone” by Abraham Verghese

Since its publication in 2009, friends have been suggesting that I read “Cutting the Stone”, a novel by Abraham Verghese.  Verghese, of Indian ancestry, is identified in the book as “Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine” at Stanford, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center.  Taking a break from his medical career, he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has since written a couple of well regarded memoirs and this novel, all of which have sold well and been reviewed very positively.

Why did it take me four years to read the book?  Well, of course, because other books got in the way.  Also because it is a rather long book (the paperback version is 660 pages long).  And third, because I can’t say that the subject matter was very appealing.  I knew it was a medical novel, about doctors and their careers, and that it was filled with medical terminology.  Just not my thing. 

But my wife loved the book, so I decided to read it on the plane from DC to the West Coast – that way, I would have the time to get into a 600+ page book, and not be tempted to put it down and move on to something else.

What a great book.  It kept me going, not only on the plane but for a few days after, as I was able to catch a few minutes here and there to read on our vacation.  I would recommend it without condition.

Yes, there are a lot of medical procedures described, and medical terms used.  And, in fact, there are a fair number of other unusual terms employed by Verghese, who either has a very large vocabulary or a very well used thesaurus.  But so what?  The writing is so clear and compelling that you know what he is talking about, even if you don’t.

Verghese was born in Ethiopia to Indian parents.  His medical training was begun in Ethiopia, but in the chaos following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassi, he and his parents came to America, although Verghese then went to India to complete his training.  He became a resident in a hospital program in Johnson City, TN, where he stayed until he went to Iowa to become a writer.  He then returned to medicine, but his career took off in a totally different direction, leading him to his present positions at Stanford and Texas.

OK, the book —

Our hero (and he is our hero) is Marion Stone, twin brother of Shiva Stone, born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun-nurse and an English born surgeon, both working in a clinic in Addis Ababa, where she was his surgical assistant.  But she was a nun, after all, and a very serious medical assistant, and no one suspected that the two of them had any personal relationship, only that they were quite a good team.  And she kept her pregnancy secret, even from him.  And she died in childbirth, and he (beside himself in fear and agony) disappeared, leaving the twins in the care of one of the other physicians at the clinic (there were only three; now there were two).

And the twins had different personalities, but grew up in this unusual location where their only playmate was a girl, the child of one of the native workers at the clinic, a trusted native worker.

The book is the story of Marion, and the story of the clinic and the physicians and others who worked at, and were treated at, the clinic, and how Marion grew, emotionally, intellectually and eventually sexually, and how he and his foster parents became a family, and how Marion and Shiva broke apart.  And the revolution in Ethiopia, and split between the primarily Christian Ethiopians and the primarily Muslim Eritreans and how this further disrupted and destroyed the close clinic community, and what it did to Marion.

And illnesses and deaths and political tortures, but nonetheless, Marion becomes a physician in Ethiopia, but is required to leave his country (but is it his country?) and comes to America and gets a position as a surgical resident at an underfunded clinic in the Bronx.  And how he reacts to America, how he accidentally but inevitably meets his father – now a well respected surgeon, but with a lot of baggage – and how Marion’s past returns to him, how he almost dies of a sudden and rare disease.  And how he recovers.

It is quite a story.  It is quite a book.  Why did I wait so long?

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