Of a gripping medical science novel for laypeople (too), and of multi-talented individuals.

Recently, a dear new friend raved to me about a book called Cutting for Stone, by author Abraham Verghese; as with every book that receives very enthusiastic reviews from someone, I wondered if I had time to read yet another (longish) book, in the middle of what has turned out to be a very busy summer for me.  I cannot tell you how glad I am that I decided to follow my friend’s recommendation and read this one.  It has taken some time for me to cover it, but it wasn’t because of any inaccessible quality in the book; rather, it was a matter of having less time to expend.  I worked it in at every possible time, and unlike what often happens with books when you are forced to put them down and resume reading at a later day, I found that I did not lose track of where I’d been:  the events were that gripping.

There’s something for everyone here, all in one book.  It’s perhaps first and foremost a family drama, a saga of betrayal, anger, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  In this book, faith and science are not opposed, but operate together as the individual characters follow their destinies and achieve both professional and spiritual wholeness.  Though the story is set in another part of the world from the U. S. through much of the novel and begins back in time a number of years, it would be a mistake to assume (as Americans sometimes regrettably do) that the awareness of feminist issues is missing:  the author, both in the spirit of the novel and in the mechanics of writing has fully and richly merited the attention the book has received, as an exemplar of tolerance and societal love.

The story is a story of conjoined twins and their biological and adoptive parents, as well as the society(ies) in which they function and the happenings in those places.  For much of this fictional work, the historical and cultural backgrounds are Ethiopia, India, and Eritrea, with the latter part of the work comprising the characters’ presence in the U. S., tracing the natural comparisons made among the different areas, and showing what befalls the characters by force of their exposure to societal factors like revolutions and breakthroughs in medical science.  These issues are not dryly presented, however, but are interwoven closely with the characters’ lives and emotions, giving the changes in society an urgency which gracefully and passionately recommends itself for the readers’ attention.  As the author notes in his acknowledgments page at the end of the book, he has slightly revised the historical events by a few years to place his story within its fictional time frame, but I doubt that even a specialist in any of the myriad intellectual fields covered so easily and smoothly would feel this to be a jarring note.  The acknowledgement pages are even interesting to read, for they not only show the wide variety of sources the versatile Verghese has consulted and his generosity in attributions of help (which speak to his humanity very convincingly too), but they also provide useful resources for those wishing to follow up the fictional events non-fictionally, or for those who are interested, additionally or conversely, in literary ancestors of parts of this wonderful book.  One of the most critical and interesting thematic threads, which is here at once intellectual, literary and factual is the repeated use of the expression “cutting for stone,” which recurs a number of times in the book in various usages.  One has to follow this particular riddle to the very end to realize just how complex even such a simple bit of language can be in the hands of a true master of story-telling.

Which brings me to another issue.  How many times in your life have you envied those multi-talented individuals who master more than one vocation or profession easily and neatly, or who (like Abraham Verghese) can find an intellectual place in their lives even for a combination of the things they do?  For Verghese is a doctor himself, employed at Stanford School of Medicine where he has achieved outstanding status among his peers, and he is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  There have been other people something like him:  to name just two, there was William Carlos Williams, another doctor and a famous poet; or, Wallace Stevens, again a world-renowned poet and an insurance agent when he wasn’t writing poetry.  Where do these polymaths find the time, the energy, the talent?  For this, it’s necessary to read biographies, and even then often their life stories leave us a bit mystified.

I can tell you this, though:  you will not have read a better and more moving book in more than a decade than Abraham Verghese’s book.  And he has written others, at least two by now!  Are you worried or anxious that the book will be too technical for you?  Don’t be.  There are a few long medical terms thrown in, but as opposed to the sort of doctor none of us likes to find in our home court, Verghese does a very good, humane job of sketching out quick and understandable explanations for the terms concerning their significance to the story.  If you were a reader of the Encyclopedia Brown books when you were a child (and you may have noticed in the news that the author, Donald Sobol, sadly passed away a few days ago at the age of 87), in which that human compendium of facts the Brown kid solved mysteries because of all the facts and details he’d been able to master, then you certainly have a leg up in scientific terms, even though Verghese’s book is far more serious and emotive than those early childhood delights.  Or, if as a teen or an adult you had a look at Berton Roueche’s collections of medical mystery stories, then you will be well-supplied with an automatic enthusiasm for the explanations that occur in Cutting for Stone.  Neither of these preparations is essential, however, for reading one of the very best of the best novels to come out in recent years; I’m only sorry that I didn’t hear about it sooner.

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