Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Club: "Cutting for Stone"

Although we all enjoyed the book, several of us were bothered by what we perceived as a passive protagonist and felt the story dragged in many places. We all agreed that Verghese did an excellent job of character development and it was our curiosity about these people that maintained our interest in the book.

This is a multi-cultural novel, the greater portion of which is set in Ethiopia. It begins in 1954 with flashbacks in the opening chapters to establish key characters. Verghese, a physician himself, focuses on the doctors and staff of a charity hospital known as "Missing Hospital" -- a mangling of "Mission" but appropriate for the characters that populate the book (the "Missing People"). The novel chronicles the birth and lives of twins Marion and Shiva who were conjoined at birth and successfully separated by their surgeon father. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, died as a result of the difficult delivery. Their father, Thomas Stone, fled immediately afterward. The boys were raised by the two doctors who kept the hospital going following the departure of its premiere surgeon.

The twins are referred to as Shivamarion; a single unit, a collective. Genet, illegitimate daughter of their housekeeper/nanny, completes the threesome that is exceptionally attuned to each other. During childhood the trio are inseparable. However, adolescent betrayal and political turmoil in Ethiopia tear them apart. Marion silently nurses anger and resentment toward Shiva and Genet that he does not resolve until years later.

I won't go into the details of Marion's upbringing, which constitutes seemingly 3/4 of the novel. Personally, the pace and grinding details in some scenes made it difficult for me to read at times. The book read more like a memoir than a work of fiction. Having been immersed in plot-driven novels of late, I grew frustrated waiting for the "action" to begin and narrator Marion to take over his own life. Yet the group wondered if this was done deliberately to reflect the minutia that are significant to children, the slower pace of the Ethiopian culture, and to reconstruct the leisurely approach of 19th century novels.

It seems likely that the entire novel was structured to illustrate the fable of Abu Kassem's Slippers told by one of the characters. The tale teaches that everything you see, do, touch - what you do or don't do -becomes part of your destiny. "The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not."

Thus -- although several of us found the narrator irritatingly static, his lack of action was as influential on the outcome of the novel as were the choices made by the other characters.

The events and inter-personal relationships of the novel are too complex to summarize here. From adolescent angst to political upheaval to race and social status -- the novel encompasses a number of themes.

What we all took away from Cutting for Stone was the observation made by one of the characters that we live life forward, but understand it backward.


Our next book is Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. This will be our first nonfiction book for the group. I recently skimmed through it for research. Aside from Voldemort, who better to study in developing a nasty antagonist that Hitler and his cohorts? So now I will reread the book with more care.

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