K's Reviews > Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
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Dec 02, 09

bookshelves: africa, should-ve-been-shorter, maybe-it-s-me
Recommended to K by: TABBIEs book club

If I were really honest, I would probably put this on my "couldn'tfinish" shelf because I skimmed the last 150 pages. As one reviewer said, a book has to be pretty amazing to justify 500+ pages. And while this book had its strong moments, it mostly fell short of amazing.

The story, in a nutshell, is that of Marion (male) Stone, born with a conjoined twin (but successfully separated at birth) brother, Shiva. The twins are the product of an illicit union between a surgeon and a nun in an Ethiopian hospital. The nun dies, the surgeon runs away, and the twins are raised by two other doctors working in the hospital. Marion nurtures an inexplicably enduring one-sided love (lust, really) for his nanny's daughter, Genet, who then betrays and hurts him repeatedly in all kinds of ways. Eventually, Marion is forced to leave Ethiopia for America, and in a series of unlikely coincidences, reunites with his biological father, with Genet, and with others he knows from his Ethiopia days who have come over to America.

Although the story got off to a strong start, it kind of petered out and died. One reason for this is that it was very unevenly paced. Some events were told to us in excruciating detail; others, arguably more critical, were quickly summarized and moved past. The book was purported by the blurb to be the story of Shiva and Marion's childhood, Shiva's betrayal of Marion, and Marion's subsequent fleeing to America, but we don't get there for the first 175 pages as the backstory (the surgeon and the nun) is told to us in great detail.

Although the backstory ironically ended up being the strongest part of the book for me, as I read it I kept having the nagging feeling of waiting for the real story to start. Then, once it did, most of Shiva and Marion's childhood was glossed over so that we never really get a sense of their relationship or their individual personalities (Shiva comes across as someone with Asperger's, which I know was at least partially deliberate but also felt like a function of Shiva's not having any sort of graspable personality or logic to his actions). Because I didn't find myself empathizing with either of the brothers or feeling their relationship, when the heavily foreshadowed betrayal finally came, it was actually pretty anticlimactic.

The writing was usually pleasant, occasionally even gripping, but sometimes it veered into the overly florid, and the medical/surgical detail was way, way TMI. Maybe I'd have been interested if that were my thing, but it so isn't.

Lots of people liked this book way better than I did, and it might have worked better for me had it been way, way shorter and eliminated the ridiculous Marion-Genet love story. Unfortunately, many of the book's events hinged on that love story which is part of what killed it for me.
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Reading Progress

11/28/2009 page 116
21.44% "It's been ages since I've read a good literary novel. Bless you, Abe, even if you are a major Stanford medical school professor who writes!"
11/29/2009 page 186
34.38% "Increasingly engrossing. A bit detail-heavy, especially surgical/medical detail (ugh), but starting to move along."
11/30/2009 page 320
59.15% "Getting a little tired of all the male adolescent initiation to sex episodes. Aren't there any other aspects to character maturation?"
12/01/2009 page 380
70.24% "The book started off pretty strong, but now it's really dragging. A book needs to be way better than this one to justify 500+ pages."

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Eden (new)

Eden Interesting that you say that some of the events were expalined in detail and some were just glossed over. I think that would annoy me. I read the Poisonwood Bible and didnt like it for that exact reason. The first three "books" were all about this one particular year (if I am not mistaken, but in anycase, it was a relatively short period of time) in this family's life in Africa and the last "book" told the story of The Rest of THeir Lives. Like another 20 or so years. It just felt so disjointed for me and really ruined the whole experience. (which I enjoyed during the first three parts). Oh well.


message 2: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Yes -- I remember feeling exactly the same way about "The Poisonwood Bible."

I do think there's an art to knowing what to spell out and what to simply summarize, i.e., not every single thing should be told in full detail (I've never read "Twilight," but a lot of goodreads reviewers complained about the author's excessive and indiscriminate use of detail). But that decision needs to be made carefully; otherwise it reads as if the author simply got tired of telling the story and suddenly zoomed ahead.


Whitney Bales Thanks for validating some of my feelings here. I loved the back story and Marion-Genet ruined it for me.


message 4: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Thanks, Whitney! Glad we agreed.


message 5: by Tzipora (new) - added it

Tzipora Thanks for your review. A friend of mine, who is a nurse, absolutely raved about this book to me and how I should read it and how it was her favorite book and favorite medically themed book ever. I do like medical themed stuff so maybe that part will be different for me but I never realized how very long the book is and tend to agree as far as it better be darn good to justify so many pages! I got this book as a gift awhile ago but somewhere between the length and the fact that even just reading the back cover synopsis it doesn't really draw my attention. I don't think it ever appealed to me all that much yet it was recommended to me, now I own it, etc... Worth pointing too it was a recommendation I took from someone whose reading style I'm not at all familiar with either, and perhaps that wasn't my best bet either.

Anyway, I guess I'm trying to say thanks for your detailed review as it makes me feel a lot better in how I just haven't been rushing to read this book. Like every other book lover, I have so (SO!) many books on my shelves waiting to be read and it's always nice to have some help deciding which should get my attention first! Plus there's a bit of guilt that I was recommended the book and had tossed it on a wish list where it was then bought for me, feels like I should be more excited to read it or something. I'm sure I will give it a try eventually anyway but there's too many books in the world and never enough time. Sounds a lot like this story tries to cover too much maybe? Kinda of reminds me of Jeffrey Eugenide's Middlesex which was interesting at times, also a somewhat medical and somewhat cultural (maybe not quite the word I want!) life story and history type. I found that book to be longer than it should've been or overly detailed in the wrong places. Though there too, I know many love that novel. I don't think I'm a fan of authors who write extensive histories of their characters which seems to a big part of why I don't feel drawn to Cutting for Stone either. I'm thinking the heavy medical detail on the other hand, may be what gets me to try it at some point though.

Anyway, thanks again. I'm so long winded but love how you were able to rather succinctly describe what didn't work for you in the book. :)


message 6: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Thanks for your comment, Tzipora! I'm really glad my review was helpful to you. I know lots of people liked this book, but it really didn't work for me. Interestingly, I actually did like "Middlesex" and thought it was far superior to this book. I've enjoyed a few non-fiction works with medical themes, but personally have been less enamored by medicine-themed fiction. I find that, with fiction, I really need it to be about the story and the characters. Sometimes when authors write novels with "medical themes," they end up stuffing a lot of medical detail in at the expense of the story. I've felt that way about some historical fiction works as well. It's like science fiction and futuristic novels that do a lot of "world building." Some people love that stuff, but I really just want the story and the characters and don't have a lot of patience for world-building beyond the minimum needed to make the story believable.


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