“Cutting for Stone: a novel”
“Cutting for Stone: a novel“ by Abraham Verghese Vintage Canada Edition, 2010, 667 pages + bibliography
Recently a reader responded to one of my book reviews with a comment that first scared me half to death and then embarrassed me to the same point: “Once again,” this person wrote, “your review of ‘an incredibly good book’ tells me that this is not a book I want to read.”
a) This was from a person whose judgment I valued , and b) I had just been to Blockbuster Video to help them liquidate their stock and I was sickened, not for the first time, by the superlatives on the cover of every single flick in the store.
Did I say that – “an incredibly good book”? Yes, I did. Not in the review itself but in the email to announce it. No excuse! Fortunately, my valued reader wrote that she would read it anyway, simply because she valued my judgment.
Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” was recommended to me by another valued reader who never said it was an “incredibly good book”. She made it clear that she liked it very much, and that was enough for me. I knew Dr. Verghese’s name, had read some of his writing in The New Yorker, and I knew that this was his first novel.
So I searched the library catalogue, found that all the copies were out, put one on reserve, and waited quite a long while. In the meantime I heard from another reader that “it’s been flying off the shelves” in book stores.
Reader, be warned! This is not the first time I have reported on “millions of copies sold”, “flying off the shelves” , “recommended by a truly valued person” – with great disappointment.
“Cutting for Stone: a novel” takes place mainly in Ethiopia beginning shortly after World War II where a very young Catholic Nurse-Sister , trained in India, works as a surgical assistant to a small mission hospital’s best surgeon. I won’t tell you how this came about or even their names because, for me, the best part of reading a good book is being on the page not knowing what comes next until you turn the page.
On a beautiful day in Montreal I sat on a bench overlooking the garden beside La Grand Bibliotheque where I had just picked up my reserved copy and read for longer than I intended to. The story from the beginning is compelling, it’s touching, and it is well told. After a while I went home looking forward to spending a lot of time with this very thick book.
Abraham Verghese is a medical doctor who made his reputation as a doctor who writes. Unlike W. Somerset Maughm who trained as a physician and then allowed his success as a writer to take him off course, Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, has persisted in his medical career. He is Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. And he writes.
This book is so full of very detailed descriptions of medical pathologies (I use that word to warn you – I’m serious!) – that often, especially if reading while eating lunch, I had to skip long passages. Sometimes he describes an operation, from incision to – well, nevermind. I am a health professional – though not a surgeon or an m.d. or a scientist, I am not squeamish. Or I thought not. Reading these descriptions, however, I was completely convinced that in not pursuing medical school, I made the right decision.
So then I began to muse about the decision the author made – why would he include such graphic descriptions of human “guts” in a novel? Did he wish to share with the reader what to him (and to the narrator) is the magnificence of this little known territory? Even when “the narrator” is a fourteen year old boy who is just discovering his own fascination with surgery in the mission hospital? Or was it his idea to present in a novel solid medical knowledge – some of it grossly disturbing and horribly tragic – to prove that medical text books do not have to be either daunting or boring? Or, cynically, did the marketing department of his publisher insist that this emphasis would sell books? (Raise your hand everyone who is ready to respond, “Oh, Elaine, those were the best parts!)
“Cutting for Stone: a novel” covers a good fifty years. Along the way the narrator, even as a child, uses the first person singular. This is, as Maughm has said, “a literary convention which is as old as the hills….It’s object is of course to achieve credibility for when someone tells you what he states happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth than when he tells you what happened to somebody else. It has besides the merit from the story-teller’s point of view that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact and can leave to your imagination what he doesn’t or couldn’t know. Some of the older novelists who wrote in the first person were in this respect very careless….” And so, dear Reader, is Dr. Verghese when, for example, having just described the reaction of someone in the room to something the first person narrator has just announced, writes, “I was blind to the look on her face.”
Mr.Maughm, continuing on the subject of those “careless older novelists”, has said that when they report at great length conversations they couldn’t possibly have heard and incidents they couldn’t possibly have witnessed they lose the great advantage of “verisimilitude”.
Right on! There were times reading this book when I thought it was more like a memoir than fiction. This must be true – I thought - he couldn’t have made this up. And there were times when I couldn’t help thinking this novel was written by committee – I could see them around the board room table, hear them kicking around this event or another. I think Dr. Verghese lost more battles than he won, from a literary point of view. I wasn’t there, of course. I do not pretend “verisimilitude”. But that the marketing department won is clear from the numbers. Incidentally, the book has eight pages of acknowledgments and one and a half pages of bibliography. Bibliography for a novel?
It’s a good read, overall, not a great one. It reminds me of “The Kite Runner”. a very big seller a few years back. It too started out with a very compelling story and advanced to “group think” which succeeded admirably – millions of copies sold, film made, etc. (By the way, there is already a film called “Cutting for Stone” – it is not taken from this book.)
Why the title “Cutting for Stone” ? I didn’t know what it meant and even at the end didn’t get its significance. I looked it up on google. (Watch out for this one: “The title “Cutting for Stone” is taken from the Hippocratic oath, but may also reflect a double meaning. … “ ) No kidding! It’s that double meaning I didn’t want to acknowledge. Too simplistic, demeaning! And yet, further research, which I will not share at this point for fear of giving away too much of the story, awakens other interpretations, not quite so simplistic as the first that comes to mind, but still a little “in your face”.
Millions of people have read this book. Some of them loved it and some did not. This reader will not refer to it as “an incredibly good book”, a term she uses only when she means it.
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2011
Posted in Book Reviews