Friday, June 15, 2012

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese



So, I finally finished the SECOND of the two big fat books I was reading simultaneously (note to self: this is a bad idea).  Cutting for Stone is one of those books that's been floating around the book discussion group circuit and seems to be mostly beloved.  I never made time to read it, but I had a copy that I bought for a mere $1 at the library sale a couple of years ago, so I used my powers as book club coordinator to put it on the reading list.

I knew nothing about this book, other than it was more than 500 pages long and had something to do with a doctor and Ethiopia.  I knew nothing about Ethiopia either, other than once having eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago called Mama Desta's Red Sea, where the food was extremely spicy, and there was no silverware -- you eat with little pieces of bread called injera.  (That's in the book too -- the bread, not the restaurant)

An Ethiopian meal served on a bed of injera.

But I digress.  This is a big book, full of stuff.  Without spoilers, here's the setup:  In 1954, at an Ethiopian hospital, a beautiful Indian nun (who is also a nurse) Sister Mary Joseph Praise, goes into premature labor, shocking the entire staff with the fact that she's pregnant.  She gives birth to twins, Marion and Shiva, who both grow up to be doctors.  The story is told from the point of view of the elder twin, Marion, who tells the story of his birth and conception, and his coming of age.  The story covers Ethiopian history, political uprisings, loves, and loss.

After reading it off and on for a couple of weeks (alternating with other books) I finally finished it.  After thinking about it for a while, I realized the best way to describe this book is messy.  It's a big, sprawling novel, and it covers more than 30 years of Marion's life, not including the back story of his parents and other characters.  It's kind of all over the place, jumping around and breaking up the narrative.  It takes 200 pages for these kids to be born, because the author kept digressing into the various character's histories, including the history of someone who doesn't even get a proper name until the end of the book.  I found this really erratic and frankly, quite annoying at times.

I'd also describe this book as messy because there is an awful lot of medical stuff, and to be frank, it's not for the squeamish.  There are a lot of bodily fluids and functions described, and unless you have a strong stomach, you might not to read parts of it while eating (I spend almost every lunch hour reading when I'm at work).  The author of the book, Abraham Verghese, is both a doctor and a writer.  This is his first novel, but he's been a doctor for years, and is currently a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, so he obviously knows his stuff.  I did find the medical stuff very interesting, but it's not for everyone.

I also really enjoyed learning about Ethiopia and about Marion's life as a medical student, but overall, I thought the novel was just too much -- there's a LOT of melodrama and unbelievable coincidences, several of which I just couldn't get over.  It was an interesting read, but I really felt like it could have used some editing.  I also found a lot of the characters to be quite undeveloped -- he'd spend pages and pages on a character, then they'd be relegated to the background.  Plus I think he spent more time creating a character's history, not so much the actual characters themselves.  Does that make sense?  It's like he spent more time describing them, instead of showing us more through their dialogue and actions.

I also realized after reading it that both Cutting for Stone and my previous read, Of Human Bondagewere coming-of-age stories about orphaned boys who become doctors.  (And both were long).  But that's where the comparison ended.  Compared to Of Human Bondage, this book was really lacking in character development, and the writing wasn't nearly as good.  Overall, Cutting for Stone was an interesting book, but I wouldn't say I'm raving about it.  I'm glad I read it and I'm sure we'll have a good discussion, but I can't say it will be considered a classic someday.

14 comments:

  1. Messy? That's the perfect word. I really enjoyed the Africa portion of the novel, but I thought it lost its way in the US. I think it captures a time and a place well, but I agree with your evaluation that it won't be considered a classic. Great, honest review!

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    1. Thanks! I was thinking about how it's kind of all over the place, and then all the medical stuff. . . . it's a really ambitious novel, and I know it's his first book. I guess I'm unfair trying to compare it to Maugham. It's just that I read them back to back.

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  2. Oh good! I'm so glad I'm not alone on this one. I uploaded the audio and listened to the first quarter of the book on the way to my sister's wedding back in May. I wasn't really hooked by the story, narrator, or writing, but I kept going because I figured that I should. But then there were just one too many squeamish scenes, and right around when we started talking about twisted bowels and severe dystention, I gave up. I read a couple reviews that gave away spoilers for the rest of the book, and I am very thankful I didn't read any further. I doubt I would have enjoyed it.

    I'm not sure if I can make the group this month. I'm going to see if my cousin can watch the boys that hour, because I doubt the book club conversation will be okay for them to sit in for it, even if they're just reading off to the side. If not, I'll at least come at the beginning to pick up the next book. But I'm hoping she'll be able to watch them. She doesn't live too far from there.

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    1. Update: My cousin said she can watch them! Yay! This is, of course, subject to anything coming up. Between the two of us, we have 5 kids, and you never know when one of them is going to suddenly get sick (or something else, you know). But as of right now, I should be there!

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    2. Glad you'll be able to make it. I think it's going to be a divided reaction but I'm always happy to have your input.

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  3. One of my book groups read this, and they were pretty sharply divided. One of them is still trying to give her copy away - she doesn't want it around. I had to miss the meeting so I never got around to reading it, and I haven't been inspired to pick it up (or to take the free copy on offer!)

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    1. I'll be donating my copy after the book discussion. I'm glad I read it but I don't really have any desire to read it again. And my copy is a big fat hardcover which is taking up a lot of space.

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  4. I remember not enjoying this while I was actually reading it. I pushed through because I found the description of Ethiopia and its history very compelling. In the end it was just an 'okay' read for me.

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    1. I agree, the Ethiopian parts were the most interesting. I was less convinced by Marion's relationships with women, to put it mildly. The last third was kind of ridiculous.

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  5. It could have something to do with the fact that I'm really hungry and waiting for lunch right now, but what interests me most is the Ethiopean food. It looks very exotic but delicious! Did you like it? And did you manage to eat it without spilling it all over you? Injera doesn't seem to be the most handy way of picking your food up...

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    1. I remember liking the parts that weren't too spicy for me to eat. It was a lot of stewed things. We had more injera on the side, which is like a very thin, spongy bread, almost the texture of foam rubber. You tear off pieces and scoop up the food with it, a little at a time. They probably have silverware for customers who really want it, but it was so long ago I don't remember.

      There are Ethiopian restaurants here in Texas but they're pretty far away, so I'd have to go to a bigger city to try Ethiopian food again.

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    2. Jason and I had Ethiopian in Austin back in 2010, and they served a whole spiral roll of that bread. You're right, it does feel like foam rubber! Tastes delicious, though. I, too, liked the less spicy foods better.

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    3. Do you remember the name of the restaurant? I think there's more than one.

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  6. I didn't think I would like this book but got sucked into it and really enjoyed the storytelling. Reminded me of Isabel Allende's style.

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