Oct. 22nd, 2013

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Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

They say "write what you know." So physician Abraham Verghese, born in Ethiopia from Indian parents, chose for his first novel a narrator born in Ethiopia that was raised by Indian parents and who eventually becomes a surgeon.

Cutting for Stone is an epic soap opera worthy of Sidney Sheldon's best. A nun traveling by ship from India to Ethiopia saves the life of a British doctor onboard. They later become colleagues in an Addis Ababa hospital, Missing, and silently fall in love with each other. The outcome is tragic - the nun gives birth to twins, Marion and Shiva, and dies in the process. The father, Dr Thomas Stone, is overcome with grief and abandons the babies to a pair of Indian doctors - Hema and Ghosh - to raise.

The twin boys grow under the shadows of Missing and experience some of Ethiopia's historical changes. Marion, the virginal and unremarkable twin, is the narrator. He's not as clever and seductive as his brother Shiva (who steals the girl he loves from under his nose), nor is he his adoptive mother's favourite. Fate eventually exiles him from Ethiopia, to a life in a poor hospital in New York where all doctors are foreigners, all patients are on Medicare and all corpses can expect to be organ harvested for rich Americans.

You can really see Ethiopia and its people in Verghese's novel and it is one of its few pleasures, alongside the look at the unfair healthcare system in America. But the plot - full of sentimental coincidences and love making worthy of a Bad Sex in Fiction Award - leaves a lot to be desired. Marion is an unlikeable narrator, but I don't think that was Verghese's intention. The writing only comes alive with the scenes of hospital proceedures, and although these come along quite often they are not enough to hold this long novel together.

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