I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest;
I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
~ From the Hippocratic Oath
Cutting for Stone begins with the pregnancy and birth of slightly conjoined and separated twins, Marion and Shiva Stone, orphaned at birth with the death of their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and the disappearance of their father, Dr. Thomas Stone. Marion and Shiva are raised at the Ethiopian hospital where they are born, by two Indian doctors, who love them as their own. They grow up amid political upheaval, though they are mostly insulated from the drama going on around them.
The story is told from Marion’s point of view, even before his birth finally occurs 130 pages in. Marion and Shiva are raised along with a girl named Genet, the daughter of their family maid. Marion falls in love with Genet, and hopes to grow up and marry her someday. Events, of course, spiral out of control, and the paths followed by Marion, Shiva, and Genet veer into very different directions.
I think what I liked best about the book was how clearly and delicately Verghese tied the events of the story together, though I did wish they had been a bit more linear at times. By the time you finish, there aren’t too many unanswered questions, and you can easily see how the events that transpired came to be. The greatest strengths of the book is the story, the vibrancy of the characters, and the lovely writing, as expressed in this passage.
We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself.
Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound.
I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. “What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?” she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life. I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. “Why must I do what is hardest?”
“Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’?”
How unfair of Matron to evoke that soaring chorale which always made me feel that I stood with every mortal creature looking up to the heavens in dumb wonder. She understood my unformed character.
“But, Matron, I can’t dream of playing Bach, the ‘Gloria’… ,” I said under my breath. I’d never played a string or wind instrument. I couldn’t read music.
“No, Marion,” she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”
The weakness, for me, comes when Verghese starts describing a surgery. I’m squeamish about such things already, so it kind of turned my stomach to read the details of a tube being sent down through the heart into the veins or whatever. But worse than that, to those of us with little to no interest or knowledge of surgical medicine, they stopped the narrative of the story in its tracks. It went from a flowing, sometimes lyrical, character driven plot, to a plodding lesson in anatomy that I had to steel myself to power through. Our neighbor is a surgical nurse, and she LOVED these parts of the book. She loved the entire book, actually, and has a friend who works with Dr. Verghese at Stanford and says he’s a wonderful, charming, brilliant man. I’m sure he is. I hope that if he continues his writing career, he is able to leave a bit of the surgical detail on the cutting room floor, as it were.