Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Cutting For Stone

I was told to read Cutting for Stone for a good novel about Ethiopia and Surgery. Literary novels are always hard for me to read: many times they seem more about stringing together pretty words, rather than telling a story in straightforward fashion. Fortunately, Abraham Verghese is actually a doctor and professor at Stanford, and the writing is pretty straightforward and doesn't usually attempt to be lyrical, though there are allusions to "magical realism", a genre that I dislike.

The story is told from the point of Marion Stone, part of a set of conjoined twins that was born to a nun in a (fictional) hospital in Ethiopia. The nun dies during childbirth. The father, a master surgeon with a deadly horror of personal relations, runs away from both his sons, who are then adopted by the community surrounding the hospital. The rest of the novel is about the twins, both of whom grow up to be surgeons, a woman that Marion loves, and the twins (non-)relationship with their runaway father.

Sprinkled all through the novel is witty medical aphorisms. For instance, "What treatment is administered solely through the patient's ear?" "Words of Comfort." There are many details about being a doctor and being a surgeon, but nothing too visceral or discomforting. This is much more tame than the typical Richard K. Morgan novel, for instance. I suppose if you are a careful reader you might come away with a knowledge of Ethiopia. For me, it's all so much background story arranged to fit the story. The medical stuff is the fun part: as Stephen King says, people (myself included) love reading about other people's professions.

My big criticism about most science fiction is that it's all about the ideas, plot, or universe, and the writers are usually terrible at developing believable three dimensional characters. The problem with literary fiction is that it's all about the characters. Strip away the witty medical aphorisms and the details about the process of becoming a surgeon, and you realize that the book's themes and ideas are empty. Now, the surgical stuff is really really good, and for some people, the Ethiopian stuff is worth the price of admission. The characters are good, it's just that the plot is nearly non-existent.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel, and it's obviously a great achievement. Given the author's background and the notes, you can be assured that all the medical stuff is up to snuff and you're not getting a simplified view of a surgeon's world. Mildly recommended.
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