Abraham Verghese: “Cutting for Stone”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

If you haven’t already read Abraham Verghese’s 2009 novel, Cutting for Stone, you must run right out, buy it, and read it now. Really! It’s that good!

Born in Addis Ababa in 1955, Verghese was raised by his Indian parents, who had been recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia. Verghese left Ethiopia when Selassie was deposed and, after a brief stint in the United States, went to medical school in India.

Cutting for Stone draws on Verghese’s life in interesting ways. The novel is set primarily in Addis Ababa. It takes place during the coup in the 1970s and tells the story of conjoined, identical twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, born joined at the head. It also tells the tale of their most unlikely parents – both their biological parents as well as their adoptive parents. All four of the parents work at Mission Hospital (known locally as Missing Hospital), and three of them are doctors at the hospital. Their twin sons grow up to become surgeons themselves.

This sketch, of course, doesn’t begin to capture the depth and breadth and sheer beauty of the novel. I was swept up by the compelling story (and it’s a very long book, so it’s a good thing it’s a page turner). But I also found myself stopping frequently to marvel at a well-crafted sentence. This is a rare occurrence for me. Even though I have a PhD in English and was an English professor for many years, I tend to read for story, not craft. I want to go on the magic carpet ride of a good tale (and Verghese certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard). Though I can be a close reader with the best of them and analyze fiction at the sentence level, it’s not something I tend to do when I’m reading for pleasure. But saying “ooh!” and “ahh!” in response to Verghese’s splendid prose was part of the pleasure.

Adding to the delight of reading Cutting for Stone is discovering and learning a great deal about the practice of medicine, especially surgery. Verghese is a physician by training: he is currently on the faculty of Stanford University School of Medicine. But he’s also nurtured and honed his talents as a writer over the years. In fact, he took a sabbatical from medicine to study at the very prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, without a doubt the preeminent writing program in the country.

Verghese’s first two books were memoirs. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS tells the story of his work as the first physician in eastern Tennessee to treat patients with HIV and AIDS. His second book, The Tennis Partner: A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss, focuses on his love of tennis and his friendship with a medical resident fighting a losing battle to break a drug addiction (and Verghese emphasizes that many physicians face drug addiction).

Published in the 1990s, these first two books are interesting enough in their own right, but in 2009 it seemed that Cutting for Stone had suddenly come out of nowhere. It was far and away the best writing Verghese had ever done. It’s no wonder it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years and is now on Amazon’s list of 100 books to read in a lifetime. To read an excerpt from Cutting for Stone, visit the novel’s Barnes & Noble page. And to learn more about Verghese’s take on Addis Ababa and Ethiopia, listen to Public Radio International’s interview with him. For links to other interviews with and features on Verghese, visit his website.

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Watch:Watch Abraham Verghese read two short excerpts from Cutting for Stone. This rare recording of Verghese reading from the novel includes opening comments, two excerpts, and questions and answers with the audience. Verghese provides a brief introduction to the novel from 1:34 to 4:21. He reads part of the scene in which Sister Mary Praise, an Indian nun, travels from her home to Africa to work in the mission hospital: that clip runs from 4:21 to 6:40. He then sets up a scene from midway through the novel: he describes that scene from 6:40 to 7:52 and then reads the scene itself from 7:52 to 17:00.


Image Credit: Abraham Verghese, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verghese,_Abraham,_blurred_2.jpg