Cutting For Stone Summary

Abraham Verghese

Cutting For Stone

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Cutting For Stone Summary

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Ethiopian physician Abraham Verghese’s 2009 novel Cutting for Stone, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2009 selection, tells the story of twin brothers Marion and Shiva Stone who are born conjoined but are separated at the time of their birth. Their mother dies in childbirth, and their father abandons them, leaving the boys to start life as orphans. Marion serves as the book’s narrator. Specific and graphic medical details add to the overall tone of the storyline. The title of the book is a reference to the Hippocratic Oath which includes the line “I will not cut for stone” talking of work best left to surgeons. It also explains the selection of the last name of the twins’ father. The New York Times Review of Books delves into the title more deeply saying, “Yet until the reader comes across the oath, well into the novel, the title may seem pleasing to the ear but puzzling to the mind: it tries to do too many jobs at once. It neither suggests the book’s action — as, say, ‘Digging to America’ does — nor evokes its mood, as ‘Bleak House’ does. Still, Verghese strives for the empathy of Anne Tyler and the scope of Dickens. If he doesn’t quite manage either, he is to be admired for his ambition.”

The novel opens in 1954 with the birth of Marion and Shiva at Mission Hospital in Addis Ababa, the largest city in, and the capital of, Ethiopia. “Mission” is pronounced “Missing” based on the pronunciation in that region. Their mother is Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a Carmelite nun of India who had kept her pregnancy a secret; their father is Thomas Stone, an English surgeon at Missing. With the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father, the boys are raised in the home of two doctors from Madras who are also employed at Missing. One is the obstetrician Kalpana Hemlatha, known as Hema; the other is Abhi Ghosh. As they care for the twins, Hema and Ghosh fall in love with each other. Ghosh learns surgery and then takes the place of Thomas Stone at the hospital.

The twin brothers are close as they are growing up. During their coming of age, Ethiopia is going through many political changes. General Mebratu, bodyguard to Haile Selassie, unsuccessfully attempts to stage a rebellion. In the aftermath of a coup, Ghosh is put in prison but, as a friend of General Mebratu, is quickly released. With both Hema and Ghosh raising them, Marion and Shiva, not surprisingly, learn much about medicine. As they get older, the close bond between them begins to weaken as their interests and lives start to take different paths. One dividing factor occurs in their adolescent years: Marion falls in love with Genet, the daughter of Rosina, a household servant. He wants to marry her, but his brother pursues her and has intercourse with her. At this point Marion feels slighted and betrayed by Shiva. Rosina forces her daughter to undergo female genital mutilation and then takes her own life. Genet will go on to be part of the Eritrean Liberation Front in which Eritrea sought independence from Ethiopia.

As turmoil and unrest continue to grow in Ethiopia, the characters move forward with their lives. Ghosh has three hopes for Marion, which he identifies while on his deathbed. He wants him to get a good education in the medical field, to locate Stone, his father, and to overcome his differences and reconcile with Shiva. Shiva pursues a career in medicine and becomes a specialist in treating vaginal fistula while remaining at Missing. Genet and the revolutionary group of which she is a part stage an Ethiopian Airlines hijacking which leads to Marion’s leaving Ethiopia. Marion’s name appears on a list of Genet’s connections, so he leaves to avoid being arrested. This takes place in 1979, and when Marion leaves his homeland, he ends up a surgeon in New York after some time in Nairobi. Marion finds himself in the Bronx section of New York City where he gains employment at the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour hospital and ultimately becomes a surgical resident. While assisting in a difficult operation one day, Marion finds a surgeon that he does not know observing the procedure. The surgeon, as it turns out, is a well-known liver specialist from Boston, Thomas Stone, Marion’s biological father. This chance meeting eventually leads Marion to a reunion with his brother.

In addition to its assessment of the novel’s title, The New York Times also focused on the writer/physician’s use of copious details in the text. “Great novels are not built merely on the agglomeration of detail. This is a first novel that reveals the author’s willingness to show the souls, as well as the bodies, of his characters. In Verghese’s second profession, a great surgeon is called an editor. Here’s hoping that in the future the author finds stronger medicine in that line.”