Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence
Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.
But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.
Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”
This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.
Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”
Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.
Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.
Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”
Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.
Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless, might read it over two months instead of one.
Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).
Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda