Dr. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone takes you on a colorful, high-adrenaline adventure, mainly set in Ethiopia in the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually taking you to a violent part of the Bronx circa 1980. These 690 pages are rollicking with extreme events, mortal danger, and a touch of magic (such as when newborns communicate telepathically). An example of the voluptuous prose: “The decorative grille under the eaves had oxidized to a bile green, old corrosion ran down the brick like mascara, parallel to the drainpipes.” The motorcycle scene, in which the twelve-year-old twins must think on their feet to save their lives, took my breath away with its ingenuity and punch.
Verghese is a physician at Stanford, and his book is first and foremost about the challenges and beauty of medicine and surgery. Suspense often derives from not knowing if a patient will make it. Only a doctor could craft these scenes that I had never seen in a novel but that I delighted to recognize instantly: Ghosh bursting with pride after a successful operation and needing to tell someone about it; Stone “making himself small so as not to contaminate [the surgical] field”; a new cadre of young visitors in dark suits every week at the fancy academic hospital in Boston.
The novel is exhaustively researched, with a long bibliography, so that we learn about Ethiopian scenery and culture, historic political events in that country, and the creative practice of medicine in a resource-poor environment. You get an epic love story too, although perhaps not the one you think. One of the romantic storylines goes somewhere surprisingly unloving and unpleasant. Another, however, wraps up with such gorgeous writing.