Manchester District Library Book Club discussion

2013-2014 Season > Cutting for Stone

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message 1: by Julia (last edited Nov 20, 2013 02:27PM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) This is our two month read, beginning Nov. 20, 2013 and ending Jan. 22, 2014.

"A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others."

message 2: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer)

This site has some excellent information on the author.

message 3: by Shea (new)

Shea | 196 comments Mod
How is everyone doing with the read? I am enjoying it so far but am still having trouble picking it up when I have a free moment. It is not a book I can read when I am mentally tired. I am about 1/3 of the way through and I still hope to finish before the discussion.

message 4: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) I've been sick for two weeks, so this book became hard for me at times. My review is here:

message 5: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Here is the statue of St. Teresa, done by Bernini. The poster of this statue is one of the focal points of the novel:

message 6: by Julia (last edited Jan 22, 2014 10:32PM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Lorri found an excellent youtube of tizita music; here's a commentary on it:

Tizita: A New World Interpretation
by Dag Woubshet

In Amharic, the word tizita has three related meanings. It can mean, in the first place, memory and the act of memory. Some dictionaries parenthetically add nostalgia, or the memory of loss and longing—and nostalgia certainly evokes the word’s attendant mood, its melancholy, which is discernible in the way Amharic speakers use it even in the most quotidian exchanges.

Secondly, tizita refers to one of the scales or modes in secular Ethiopian music, one that conjures up in sonic terms the word’s dictionary meaning of nostalgia.

Finally, and incorporating the two, tizita refers to a signature ballad in the Amharic songbook, which always takes the form of an expression of loss. At bottom, tizita is a ballad about the memory of love loss. The lovelorn singer takes up as the subject the departed lover and, simultaneously, the unrelieved memory of loss that the lover’s departure has prompted. ...

The longing in tizita is without resolution, since the possibility of restoration or return is always thwarted. Unlike other acts of nostalgia that “try to repair longing with belonging,” tizita is akin to what Svetlana Boym terms “reflective nostalgia,” which “thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately.” Like the blues, tizita keeps alive the apprehension of loss...."

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dag Woubshet emigrated to the United States when he was thirteen. Not so many years later, he received his Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University and joined the Cornell University Department of English as an assistant professor.

message 7: by Patty (last edited Jan 20, 2014 11:58AM) (new)

Patty | 102 comments Mod
I went to this youtube discussion by Verghese about Cutting for Stone.
Very enlightening.
There is also a short Ted Talk by Verghese called A Doctors Touch which if you are a Sherlock Holmes fan you will certainly enjoy even more.

message 8: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Thanks for the links, Patty--I'll check them out today. Meanwhile, here's my review, since I probably won't be at the meeting.

message 9: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Meza | 5 comments I was unable to comment on your review page, Julia, but I will add a note here: with regard to the character of Thomas Stone, it was pretty clear that he was an alcoholic, and I found his blackout and no subsequent recollection of having sex with Sister Mary Joseph credible. I remember your study question about the emotional lives of doctors--Thomas Stone was quite estranged from his own emotions--portrayed as a pure man of science who discovered his own humanity when it was just about too late.

message 10: by Shea (new)

Shea | 196 comments Mod
Catherine, I also understood Thomas Stone to be an alcoholic and figured he was so drunk he didn't remember his sexual encounter with SMJP. However, the other ladies at book group last night had not gotten that impression as they read it. I couldn't remember what specifically I had read to make me believe he had a significant drinking problem and I no longer have a copy of the book. I am glad there is at least one other person who got that impression of his behavior and I didn't just make it up.

message 11: by Julia (last edited Jan 23, 2014 09:43AM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) But he DOES remember! Sorry I had to miss the meeting--but when we FINALLY hear Thomas's story, it's clear he has some type of illness (I didn't read it as alcoholism), and during one of his terrible periods of hallucination, Mary comes to him in her nightgown and holds him, leading to their sexual encounter. His recall of the scene is very powerful--but he doesn't experience it until much later. Once I finally knew the terrible background Thomas had experienced, I had more sympathy for him; however, I read him as having a mental illness (bipolar? manic-depressive?).

I did agree with the NY Times review in 2009: Erica Wagner pointed out: "The novel is crippled, too, by the use of back story. There is a feeling of Greek drama about the narrative: a lot of the real action happens offstage. We finally learn, toward the end of the novel, what made Thomas Stone the man he is, with all his strengths and deficits, yet by then the tale seems curiously belated and less than fully integrated into the novel. The same is true for the later events in the life of Genet, Marion’s childhood sweetheart, the daughter of his nanny, who joins a band of Eritrean guerrillas but reappears fleetingly in Marion’s life to devastating effect. Verghese’s weakness is the weakness of a writer with too much heart: it’s clear he loves his characters and he just wants to cram in every last fact about them, somehow. Great novels are not built merely on the agglomeration of detail."

message 12: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Meza | 5 comments I definitely think Stone was depressed, self-medicated with alcohol, and suffered alcohol-induced blackouts. he had the shakes too, and couldn't operate without a drink at times. It was pretty blatant. Speaking of characters, my least favorite character was Genet--very repellent. I was actually angry at the author for what he did with her. Sorry I wasn't there to speak up last night!

message 13: by Julia (last edited Jan 23, 2014 11:33AM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) I agree, Catherine--just found the book online in extra-large print, and came to this section, where he's in New Jersey and DOES remember. He tries to use alcohol to overcome his terrors, but it never helps. This is a long entry, but worth repeating, I think:

"It always begins the same way. He wakes from sleep in his quarters at Missing, wakes in terror, unable to breathe, as if he is about to die, as if the next breath will trigger the explosion. Though he is awake, the tentacles of dream and nightmare won’t let go. A terrifying spatial distortion is the hallmark of this state. His bedroom in his quarters begins to shrink. His pen, the doorknob, his pillow—ordinary objects that normally do not merit a second glance—balloon in size. They become colossal and threaten to impale him, to suffocate him. He has no control over this state. He cannot turn it off by sitting up or moving around. He becomes neither child nor man, does not know where he is, or what scene he is reliving, but he is terrified.

Alcohol is not the antidote. It does not break the spell, yet it dulls the terror. It comes with a price: instead of straddling the line between wakefulness and nightmare, he crosses over. He roams in a world of familiar objects turned into symbols; he traipses through scenes of his childhood and through hell’s portals. He hears a nonstop dialogue, like cricket commentary on the radio. That is the backdrop to these night terrors in Ethiopia. The commentator’s voice is indistinct—sometimes it sounds like his own voice. As he drinks, he loses his fear but not his sorrow. He who has no tears in his waking now weeps like a child. He sees Ghosh—probably the real Ghosh, not a dream figure—standing before him, concerned, the Ghosh lips moving but the words drowned out by the commentator.

Then she is there. He cannot hear her words, but her presence is reassuring, and ultimately, only she stays, only she keeps vigil. She must have been asleep when she was summoned, because she wears a head scarf and a dressing gown. She holds him to her when a new wave of tears appears, and she cries with him, trying to rescue him from his nightmare but, in the process, she gets sucked in. (Every time he recalls this, there is a stirring in him.) In their work together, they share an intimacy that involves the body of another who lays between them, unconscious, naked, and exposed. But this weeping in her arms is shockingly different from their gowned forearms brushing or heads bumping during surgery. Separated as they are by an operating table for so many hours a day, when she holds him, the absence of the table, or of the mask, or the gloves, is startling. He feels like a newborn placed against its mother’s naked belly. She whispers in his ear. What does she say? How he wishes he could remember. It sounds improvised, not a formal prayer. It succeeds in blunting the commentator’s voice.

He remembers her blouse, damp with his tears—no, both their tears.

He remembers clinging to her, pressing his face to her bosom, sleeping, waking, clinging, weeping, sleeping again. She asks again and again, What is it? What is it that has come over you? For hours, days, who knows how long, she stays with him as he holds on for dear life, the storm raging, battering him, trying to pry him out of her grasp.

He remembers a lull, a startling silence which is a change in the pattern. Her blouse has opened.

Like a surgeon working to develop a tissue plane under the incision, he wills the blouse to open farther, and perhaps his nose, his cheeks, help it along. Her nipples stir from the coins on which they lie, and now her breasts escape her blouse to meet his lips. Her face must be a mirror of his because what he sees in it is fear coupled with desire.

She hovers over him, naked, her breasts full and reassuring, tears of relief on both their faces, their kisses devouring each other to make up for time lost. Then he is above her, and she looks up at him as if he is the Savior. When he enters her, he is anchoring himself to her goodness, a goodness and innocence he lost so young, from which he has drifted away, and which he vows never to let go . . ."

But then he represses the memory until it floods back in N.J. His talk of a "commentator" makes me wonder if he could have been schizophrenic.

message 14: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Patty wrote: "I went to this youtube discussion by Verghese about Cutting for Stone.
Very enlightening.
There is also a short Ted Talk by Verghese called A Doctors Touch which if you..."

I just watched the second video, Patty--and did smile at how Dr. Bell resembled Sherlock! The end of the video was so touching, when he spoke of continuing to touch AIDS patients, even if they were close to death. He's SO right about the value of touch, and that was very central to Cutting for Stone.

message 15: by Patty (new)

Patty | 102 comments Mod
What an interesting discussion. I'm so glad you found that passage and passed it on. I had to read parts of it a few times. I'm sure I didn't understand the full meaning of it the first time I read it. I know I didn't pity Thomas Stone as much as I do now. There is so much in this book. This really was a sort of mystery.

Sometimes you just want to have everything all wrapped up and peacefully put away in a story but then, if your lucky, your able to share it with someone. It can be a wonderful experience. I hope some of the other folks that read the book get and read these comments.

message 16: by Julia (last edited Jan 23, 2014 03:40PM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Yes, I think it's great to use our goodreads site to add material and follow up on discussion. The whole book, in extra large print, is free online at

Life is so very complex, and the people in this book seem caught in so many webs that are woven both by themselves and by others. I understand what Catherine means about Genet--but then I think of her own mother performing genital mutilation on her, and I just have nothing but pity for her and for all of these characters.

I wondered if the group discussed the quotation at the beginning from Rabindranath Tagore, probably India's greatest poet. Verghese did a masterful job of fitting all his quotes to his topic, but Tagore is one of my favorite poets. Verghese chose this short piece for his epigraph at the beginning:

And because I love this life
I know I shall love death as well.
The child cries out when
From the right breast the mother
Takes it away, in the very next moment
To find in the left one
Its consolation.
—Rabindranath Tagore, from Gitanjali

Accepting the vicissitudes of life, without blaming anyone, is so hard--but how else can we endure? Ghosh was the only character who seemed to grasp that concept.

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