Perhaps the most mysterious element of Cutting for Stone is its title. Drawn from a phrase in the Hippocratic Oath (“I will not cut for stone.”), it seems (from my googling around) probably to refer literally to such stones as those calcified deposits that form in kidneys and gall bladders. To operate on those was apparently below the dignity of surgeons, or was deemed an operation performed only for money rather than for medical necessity. Or something. Anyhow, the rest of Abraham Verghese’s prize-winning novel is easier to talk about than its title, so let’s have at it.
Every character here is convincingly and meticulously drawn. Motivations and interrelationships are virtually flawless. History and geography are intertwined with the characters’ personal lives in a manner that gives both depth and scope to the tale. The writing itself is excellent, sometimes inspired.
The medical scenes are many and intricate. Verghese is, of course, one of those doctors who write good books. How many, how many, William Carlos Williams and Spencer Nadler, how many of you are there out there who have command of both science and literature? I envy you every one. Verghese describes the OR procedures so clearly that even this laymen has the illusion that he understands exactly what the surgeons are doing, the source and cure (or failure to cure) of a disease. Since much of the book concerns poverty and relationships between first and third world countries, there’s inevitably some political polemic, but not too much. Not enough to obscure the literature. So what’s not to like?
There are a number of places in which Verghese interrupts crucial narrative to deliver backstory or parallel story and leaves the reader dead in the water aboard a ship that was moments earlier under full and exciting sail. There are two major places where this occurs. I could have excused the others, but those two sucked a lot of oxygen out of the story for me. Too, despite the careful construction of character, there are a number of places where things are too neat, too contrived, even places where the character serves the design of the story at the expense of believability. I won’t go into them here for fear of spoiling the story for someone, but will be glad to argue them with anyone who wants to know. Janice Burroughs remarked that if a story appears contrived, it’s probably not contrived enough. Not enough art to hide the artifice. That could be the problem here, I don’t know.
At any rate, this is a skillfully written book, was a very highly rated part of the 2008 literary scene, and its location in Ethiopia gives us insight into parts of the world most of us know little about. Well worth the read despite the disappointments.