"Cutting for Stone," a beautiful, almost lyrical novel about a family of compassionate healers, gets its richness and depth from the fascinating world of medicine.
Written by a medical doctor, the title is derived from the phrase “I shall not cut for stone” which is from the Hippocratic Oath. Exactly what that phrase means and how it relates to the book and to one of the pivotal characters, Dr. Michael Stone, provides plenty of food for thought and fodder for some very lively book club discussions!
The book is available at the East Greenwich Free Library in both hard copy and e-
book format, but there are many holds on both versions. Readers have consistently given the book 4 or 5 stars.
Set in Ethiopia beginning in 1954, the novel tells the story of two male twins, born to staff members of a small mission hospital in Addis Ababa. The mother is a beautiful hospital nun from India and the father, a cynical but brilliant British surgeon named Thomas Stone. The mother dies in childbirth and the father, in shock and heretofore unaware of the pregnancy, abandons the boys at birth and immediately leaves the country.
The boys, born conjoined at the head, are successfully separated at birth. They are enthusiastically adopted by Hema, the female gynecologist on staff who has been longing for a baby. Hema soon marries Ghosh, the hospital’s internal medicine doctor, and together they raise the boys with a remarkable love and compassion that imbues the whole novel with an inner warmth.
Hema names the boys Shiva and Marion and as Marion relates their story, he often refers to them as one entity, “ShivaMarion” because of their extraordinary closeness. Though the boys are very close as children and are mirror images of each other, they have very different personalities. Both end up practicing medicine but in very different ways. At the beginning, Marion claims about life that “you live it forward, but understand it backward.” His story is an attempt to understand all that has happened to him and Shiva.
The basic plot does little to impart the epic sweep and grandeur of the novel which takes the reader from Ethiopia, to India, to Great Britain, to the United States and back again to Ethiopia. Beautifully crafted, the novel presents us with intricate puzzle pieces of characters and events that are made whole at the end. Reading it is a rich, complex and rewarding adventure. The detailed descriptions of medical procedures fascinate some readers but for me, they were sometimes an intrusion.
Now about that title. The exact phrase from the Hippocratic Oath is, “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest.” Verghese explains the phrase this way in an interview:
“It stems from the days when bladder stones were epidemic, a cause of great suffering, probably from bad water and who knows what else. There were itinerant stonecutters….who could cut either into the bladder or the perineum and get the stone out, but because they cleaned the knife by wiping it on their blood-stiffened surgical aprons, patients usually died of infection the next day.”
Here’s my interpretation of the significance of the title. Throughout the novel, I was in awe of the compassionate nature of this entire medical family who strived always to heal and to give comfort to the afflicted. There is, of course, the title’s obvious allusion to Marion’s desire to know his surgeon father, Dr. Thomas Stone, but beyond that, if “cutting for stone” means providing careless medical treatment, this family of practitioners did just the opposite.
Did you read the book? Let us know what you think.