“The language of love was the same as the language of medicine.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This book was nominated by multiple members and did not disappoint! 

Much of our discussion focused on style. This quote from “The Guardian” sums up the structure (a retelling of life and ancestry) well: the book is structured “as a surgeon might structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up.” One reader described a feeling of “comfort” knowing who would survive, thanks to the foreshadowing and the protagonist’s narrative relationship with the reader, but others wished for more surprise or suspense. Many felt the book was very organic as it developed rich character profiles and also managed to detail the colonial history of Ethiopia, medical advances around the world, and poverty and wealth. We felt Verghese did phenomenal work unwrapping these layers, and were largely impressed by his command of language. This is a book that, every fifty pages or so, strikes a careful reader into the compulsion to go grab a notebook and write that profound sentence down…

Cutting for Stone features medical procedures, oddities, illnesses, emergencies — and no fluff. Deep, scathing accounts, with plenty of blood, guts, and bodily fluids. Some readers were excited by the medical scenes, while others found them a slog. Along those lines, there was the complaint that the novel was clearly a novel (“novelized” as one person put it). Too much drama, too many crises. Odd, overly convenient connections, an overwhelming number of adventures. For one of our re-readers, the characters and writing were still compelling the second time through, but the “surroundings” of the novel were a bit much. At times, Verghese missed the sweet spot between realism and intrigue. 

We had to discuss the title, which works on numerous levels. One line in the Hippocratic Oath reads: “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.” [kidney stones] We believe this novel participates in a larger discussion of medicine: balancing between the worlds of specialists and generalists. We found numerous examples of characters stepping “out of line” and “cutting for stone” in this manner. Ghosh, the general practitioner, must perform an intestinal “untwisting” procedure (the first surgical necessity after Stone, the surgeon, flees); this can be compared to Stone attempting to deliver the twin boys (as Hema, the trained obstetrician, was not available). One went well, one went horribly wrong. The title is at once a nod to the plea to not do what you are unqualified to do, and the description of characters, self-aggrandizing and pompous, doing exactly that. It is also a challenge to the traditional oath, in that it begs the question of who is truly a “specialist in this art.” For example, traditionally parents grow and learn — “specialize” — as their children are born into the world; being a participant in the creation of new life grants them the benefit of the doubt. In the case of chosen/adoptive families there is no blood-level authority to parent, and yet in this book, the adoptive parents are incredibly doting (so much so that some readers found it almost saccharine). “Cutting” also refers to the numerous surgeons found in the novel and “Stone” also refers to the last name shared by most of the characters. We imagine the men in the novel performing the surgical act for themselves — and also for one another. Interesting to read the novel in that light — to witness actions driven by the desire to do something for someone else. 

Speaking of doting families, readers noted that the characters’ ethnicity played a role in shaping the story. According to one reader, Indian culture is traditionally very dedicated to the children of the family. If the family in this story was not Indian, maybe the story would have been different. We also noted that the story is able to make reference to, manipulate, and contribute to, histories such as arranged marriages and sexual mutilation. We found the book to dance along the edge of traditional culture and modern globalization. 

The Brown Baggers will meet in person at Central library on Thursday, July 15 at noon to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details. 

Want read alikes? Try these:

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss (about conjoined twins)

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