Sparked by Words

C Is for Cutting for Stone


Cutting for Stone, written by Abraham Verghese, enthralled me from the first page with this paragraph:

After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into this world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace, 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. The miracle of our birth took place in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3, the very room where our mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, spent most of her working hours, and in which she had been most fulfilled.

A dedicated Indian nurse who is also a nun gives birth to conjoined twin boys in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t really meant to be Missing Hospital – it was Mission Hospital, but Ethiopian tongues couldn’t pronounce it correctly, and it was transcribed as it was spoken, so Missing it became. Their mother dies during their difficult labor, the infants are surgically separated only minutes after birth, their father flees in distress of  the mother’s death. The lives of the boys began with a chance meeting of surgeon and nurse aboard a doomed ship traveling from India to Ethiopia, a clerical error, a sin, a miracle, or all three, depending upon point of view.

The story is told from the point of view of Marion, the more serious and focused twin. at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. The boys grow up under the tutelage and care of two other Indian physicians who have immigrated to Ethiopia. Marion and Shiva are often at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. Fascinated by medicine, each pursues a different track, Marion’s the more traditional medical school route, Shiva’s an organic, intuitive learning curve. As children they played with Genet, daughter of a hospital servant, forming a threesome of inquisitive youngsters. As teenagers, they both fall in love with her, accelerating brotherly jealousy. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath.

Against the backdrop of rebellion of Haile Selassi’s long rule over Ethiopia, where allegiances confound the pursuit of conflicting ideals, the boys wonder about the mysterious life of their mother and the abandonment by their father. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother and the girl they loved, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath. He faces a live changing decision that may destroy him with either outcome and forces him to turn to the two people he has come to despise – his father and his brother.

This is a long book, written by a man who was born in Ethiopia, and is now a physician and a writer in the U.S. It impressed me on many levels. Verghese’s lyrical writing and medical expertise authenticate the experiences in the story. The title of the book comes from part of the Oath, that one must not cut for stones, meaning gall bladders stones, as such surgery often led to the agonizing death of the patient. It is a lesson Marion must learn under difficult circumstances.

My own father was a physician. He always regretted that he didn’t become a surgeon, but I’ve often met people who tell me what a wonderful family doctor he was. I sensed a bit of the dilemmas my father may have met in his professional life in this book.

Two of my favorite quotes from the book illuminate some of its complexity and foreshadow future events. In the first, Matron, who helped raise the twins talks to Marion about doing his best:

“No, Marion,” she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria’. Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

In the second quote, Marion is tested by his father, a revered surgeon:

“Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort,” I said to my father.

The words in this book made me wonder and gasp on every page. Each night was a contest to see how late I could stay up to read it.


Other books that were serious contenders for C:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole


 I look forward to learning about your favorite C fiction books.



Book cover image courtesy Google images and Vintage Books



Comments on: "C Is for Cutting for Stone" (20)

  1. That sounds good. What a rocky beginning that these two kids seem to have weathered, no worse than many others. Good review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I may have not given a correct impression in the review – the boys were very much loved by the people who raised them, but certainly, doubt about parentage played a huge part of the story. Their personal story is played against the uncertainty of the political situation in Ethiopia. Haile Selassi was a dominant force in his country for decades.

      You are also right in noting that so many others begin their lives in uncertain and difficult circumstances. Thanks for reading, Jacqui.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read The Clan of the Cave Bear way back in the 1980s somewhere. That was a long book too and I enjoyed it all. I tried reading The Color Purple, but had problems getting into it, probably because it was all letters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I had a difficult time thinking of C books. I enjoyed Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye,
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Charlotte’s Web.

    You also have a few on that list that are on my To Read list.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.” – What wonderful quotes you picked to illustrate the writing, tone and substance. Your wonderful reviews make me want to read the books, even the ones that contain violence. I think you should ask for kick-backs from the authors for your genius marketing!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Loved Cutting for Stone. Clan of the Cave Bear I loved back in the early 80’s but I decided to refresh my memory and reread it prior to the release of the last in the series (2011) and I found that I did not enjoy it a second time round to the extent that I didn’t bother buying the new one. That has happened with another book ‘Dina’s Story’ which for many years I would have said was my favourite book. I lent it to someone when they were sick and they told me they couldn’t finish it so I reread it. I couldn’t finish it either. Is it that your head just has to be in the right place at the right time to get into any book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • loved, loved, loved first cave bear in series, such an imaginative view of a pre-historic era. liked the next three but a bit less each book, only skimmed fifth, didn’t bother with book number 6 at all. one particularly titillating sophomoric scene seemed to show up each book 2 – 4 times – turned me off, not on.

      as to the timing for any book, i agree, though a great book is timeless – see shakespeare or twain or any other of a number of great stories by masters. also agree that readers must be in a certain frame of mind as well. i’d read as a driven leaf decades ago (milton steinberg) but didn’t fully appreciate it until i’d studied the historical era on which it was based – then i loved it so much, i read it twice in a row, awed by the way a master imagined a classic talmudic story and brought it to life.

      a topic for further discussion, for sure – thanks for your insight, irene.


  6. I loved this book – not a ‘c,’ but am currently in middle of ‘A Man Called Ove” & am dreading when I finish it, it is that engaging. Catcher in the Rye is the only book I’ve ever re-read several times. Hopefully you’re enjoying great books while your elbow mends?


    • our book group chose A Man Called Ove so will be reading early next year.

      yes, mostly reading and TV as computer work puts me at an odd and uncomfortable angle, so computer work on hold a few weeks, except for occasionally checking in – and now, out!


  7. C – Charlotte’s Web, mostly because of the empathy so simply written. Love the story for so many reasons, but this above all else.


    • Charlotte’s Web was one of the stories I read aloud to my sons, crying through parts. It so gracefully teaches empathy.

      Wasn’t sure I would include children’s stories in this series – the end lists would be more than doubled.


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