A little while ago I turned the last page in a novel that had me spellbound for the four days it took to read its 667 pages. The book is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, published by Alfred Knopf in 2009. A Vintage paperback came out in January of this year.
In barest outline, the story revolves around twin brothers, their biological mother and father, and the stepparents who raised them. But let me stress, this is a bare bones description, as the novel is complex in its unwinding of the connection between these brothers, the betrayal, the love and the politics that shape the lives of a family and a country over fifty-seven years from India to Ethiopia to New York. The glue that holds the story together and defines the lives of the characters is the practice of medicine from one generation to the next.
It begins in India with Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a young nun of the Carmelite Order dispatched to Yemen with the aim of doing hospital work. Things don’t work out as expected in Yemen and soon she is in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa working at a mission hospital. After seven years there, in a shocking surprise she gives birth to twin boys, an event that fuels the subsequent circumstances which make, and ultimately unravel the story of seven lives.
The writer is himself a doctor, lauded for his 1994 non-fiction portrait of AIDS and its effect on a small town in Tennessee—My Own Country, a Time Best Book of the Year. Mr Verghese’s writing is sublime and glows with what we can only call wisdom. Each of the many characters in Cutting for Stone is drawn with color and voice that make them strongly memorable, even those fleeting or walk on characters who make up the living, breathing background of Addis Ababa in the 1960s. It is the precision characterizations which provide half the electricity that fires this novel. To use a worn out description, Marion and his brother Shiva are unforgettable creations and haunt the reader with their love and mystery.
Though this is only the fourth month of 2010, I’m confident in predicting that come December, Cutting for Stone will be among the top three books in my year of reading. A writer friend told me recently that Verghese’s My Own Country is one of his all-time favorite books. With time to digest the richness of Cutting for Stone, I yearn to take up My Own Country at a time when the epic story of Marion and Shiva Stone has loosened its grip on my heart.