Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book review: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Verghese's book was difficult for me to get into, initially.  I wrote about what I hard time I was having with the first fifth of the book or so.  It felt like there was too much--too much medical information, too many characters with odd names, too many places and countries and events all mashed together.  I realize now that this was my own error--thinking that I could read something as encompassing as this type of epic novel without the benefit of time off from work and stress so that I might concentrate.  It's not a fluffy read or one that I could even pick up and drop off from time to time.  It required my full attention, but once I was able to give it that and allow the plot to unfold a bit, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Cutting for Stone, the title, comes from the Hippocratic oath, but is also a double--maybe a triple play on names of characters and the fact that ethics, medicine, and axioms about life come into the story over and over again.  It does rely on the reader's ability to hang in there with a lot of medical jargon, but once I was able to pick up the book and stay with it I, I no longer found that to be a challenge.  In fact, I found it fascinating to see how medicine was able to thrive in Ethopia (where the novel is mostly set) and how that contrasted with what was available in the United States at the time (1950's-2000's).

This novel was a struggle to explore fate and forgiveness and the complex relationships between people who are tied together--whether it's through love or biology or in the case of the conjoined brothers, a cord.  Like those of most books I enjoy, these characters are not purely good or evil.  They are fallible, and the twin boys are often times each others' mirror and inverse.  There are other relationships here that are equally complex.  Father-son, mother-daughter, husband-wife.  In each case it seems like the author is able to capture how paralyzing one's feelings can be, and how sometimes even in the best of intentions, our mind gets the best of us and we "don't want to break the spell" of the moment.

If I have one negative thing to say about the book, it is that it felt too neatly wrapped up at the end.  There were plot elements that I wanted resolved, but with this book it felt too neat.  I would have been happy with about 80% of what I got at the end.  The whole shebang made it feel contrived.  Most novels I've read of this kind of grand scope are a little bit more messy.  I'm not sure that makes sense, but the fact that every end was woven in with care almost gave it less authenticity.  I will, however, say that I happily gobbled up every morsel of detail I was given in spite of this feeling of it being too full, too round.

My recommendation: A good read, particularly if you can devote some serious time to it.  Two thumbs up.

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