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Cutting for Stone: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 3, 2009
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Amazon Exclusive: John Irving Reviews Cutting for Stone
John Irving has been nominated for a National Book Award three times--winning once, in 1980, for the novel The World According to Garp. In 1992, Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In 2000, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules--a film with seven Academy Award nominations. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of Cutting for Stone:
That Abraham Verghese is a doctor and a writer is already established; the miracle of this novel is how organically the two are entwined. I’ve not read a novel wherein medicine, the practice of it, is made as germane to the storytelling process, to the overall narrative, as the author manages to make it happen here. The medical detail is stunning, but it never overwhelms the humane and narrative aspects of this moving and ambitious novel. This is a first-person narration where the first-person voice appears to disappear, but never entirely; only in the beginning are we aware that the voice addressing us is speaking from the womb! And what terrific characters--even the most minor players are given a full history. There is also a sense of great foreboding; by the midpoint of the story, one dreads what will further befall these characters. The foreshadowing is present in the chapter titles, too--‘The School of Suffering’ not least among them! Cutting for Stone is a remarkable achievement.--John Irving
(Photo © Maki Galimberti)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Lauded for his sensitive memoir (My Own Country) about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brothers long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Vergheses weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel. (Feb.)
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I came back to review the book now because I believe it has lasting power. In reading newer books, I've often wondered what will become the classics of our time. I don't know what our culture will decide, but I do know that I will personally never forget this book.
That brief summary does no justice to Verghese's powerful and remarkable prose style or the structure of the first part of the book which, although it revolves around the tragedy that claims the life of the twins' mother, also introduces the other main characters who will take the place of their biological parents. Darting back and forth between the events in the surgical theater (as Thomas Stone, horrified at what he sees, first tries to save Mary Joseph Praise's life by collapsing the skull of the infant he believes cannot be born alive), the mundane daily activities of his fellow doctor, Ghosh (trying to escape what he believes is a hopeless love for Hema) and Hema's struggle to get home to Missing from her annual holiday in India, the reader will find it impossible to put the book down and wants only to find a way of reading faster and faster to discover what happens next. By the time the twins are born, attached by a blood vessel at the head and separated at the last moment by Stone and Hema to save their lives, the reader will find himself or herself resenting every moment not spent following this story until the tale is told. And even when you are finished, the novel and its more-than-compelling characters will linger on in your mind...
Separated at birth, the twins grow up in the Ethiopia of the Emperor Haile Selaisse's reign, and Verghese introduces the reader to an ancient world that will be new to most readers, with all its flavors, colors, scents and sounds. His remarkable artistry ensures that this is never jarring but always intriguing and that the characters -- Indian expatriate doctors raising their two foster children, born to an Indian nun and an American surgeon, with the help of an Eritrean caretaker and her own daughter -- feel as familiar to us as if they were members of our own family. In the manner of a classic epic, Verghese picks his themes -- separation, the intersection of sex and death, wounds and what surgery can and can't accomplish -- and sticks to them throughout. And yet, those themes -- sweeping ones for any novelist to tackle -- never overshadow the fact that this is, at its core, the story of two brothers, Shiva and Marion -- or ShivaMarion, as Marion, the narrator, describes their single-minded unity in their youngest years.
Ultimately, the political events in Ethiopia and family betrayals send Marion fleeing to the United States. His odyssey seems to rupture all these ties and yet by the time the novel ends, we realize that every step has, in fact, been bringing Marion, Shiva and their extended family closer together as well as toward a resolution of the various plot twists. Training as a surgeon in a Bronx hospital where the only interns are from overseas ("the bloodlines from the Mayflower hadn't trickled down to this zip code", Marion reflects wryly), the finally encounters his birth father in person -- with dramatic consequences -- and has a chance to make peace with Thomas Stone, Shiva -- and himself.
Anyone familiar with Veghese's non-fiction writing (two very compelling memoirs, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story and The Tennis Partner) knows that he is an impeccable prose stylist. But relatively few non-fiction writers can also write wonderful fiction, much less produce this kind of complex drama. Rarer still is that this is a debut novel. Even the remarkable coincidences of the final third of the book never feel anything less than pitch-perfect: a real tribute to both Verghese's carefully-constructed plot and his eloquent, pitch-perfect writing.
It is rare for me to stumble over a novel of such a high caliber, one that creates the kind of characters I have never met before, characters who now are as vividly alive in my mind as any of the real individuals who populate my world. May this be only the first of many novels that Verghese produces for us, his lucky readers.
After Thomas Stone and Sister Mary Joseph Praise create their twin progeny Shiva/Marion, CFS slows down for a few hundred pages, exploring the mystic cords (umbilical and otherwise) that bind. Not that it is bad, just too much of a bland thing at times. The second third off the book sets a languorous pace too that takes 150 pages to get the boys to puberty. It would be unfair to say the book bogs down, but it definitely would have benefited from a quicker pace or editing.
The last third is the exact opposite--a series of frenetic coincidences and crises that occasionally seem contrived or created solely to wring every last tear from the reader. Some of it works, other times I found myself rolling my eyes. It was during one of these more implausible instances that it occurred to me the author--for better and for worse--reminds me of Charles Dickens, whom I quite like. Warts and all.