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Reading Buddies Wrap-Up: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

Just a couple quick notes for current and future Reading Buddies:

  • First, there is now a Goodreads group and an email reminders list for Reading Buddies!
  • Second, due to a couple of schedule changes on my end, I need to shuffle our July and August schedule a bit. I’ll post in more detail about the changes next Friday. At this point, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is still on! Check back in a week for more specifics, as well as some thoughts about what Reading Buddies will look like after August.

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Well, this has certainly been a winner of a month for Reading Buddies. The two books we read — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — were two of my favorites so far! Today we’re wrapping up the latter.

Warning: spoilers are fair game from here on in!

I really loved Cutting for Stone. I read the first half slowly, over a couple of weeks, and the last half in one go during the recent readathon.

In the wrap-up for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I wrote that Oskar, while perhaps not realistic, seemed very real to me. Verghese’s characters struck me as both real and realistic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel whose characters felt so much like people that I forgot I was reading a novel. No one was all good or all bad; no one was flat or static. Each character was so human. My favorite was Ghosh, and I’ll admit I cried when first when I found out he’d been hiding his illness and then again when he died. The other emotional part, for me, was when Marion is lying next to Shiva at the end, and he says that Shiva “had rowed over from the sinking ship and he was telling me to think this way, and it was just Shiva’s kind of logic. One being at birth, rudely separated, we are one again” (p. 640). That line gave me chills.

I had mentioned in the discussion post that I was unsure about Marion narrating his own birth. When poking around online and reading what others had written about Cutting for Stone, I came upon a post by Kim of Bookstore People about a talk she had with Verghese. She writes that Verghese “doesn’t write from an outline, but through experimentation. That’s how he came upon Marion’s voice as the narrator, moving fairly seamlessly into, then out of, and then into again, first person. He worked to combine the intimacy of first person with the omniscient knowledge of third person. His model was the opening scene of The Tin Drum when the grandson tells how his grandmother was impregnated, but how would he have have known?” I think that’s a perfect description of Marion’s voice, which ended up working just fine for me. And I’m curious to read the scene Verghese modeled his opening after! (Speaking of which, did you skim the Acknowledgements? Verghese cites so many inspirations and sources, it’s kind of amazing.)

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (cover)Like many people who have read Cutting for Stone, I went into the book looking for some deeper meaning in the title. I knew the phrase came from the Hippocratic Oath, where the line 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,” but I expected some sort of double meaning. About three quarters of the way through, an idea hit me. Marion, ever holding grudges and ready to punish those he loves for what they’ve done to him, is, it seems to me, cutting for stone in his own way, even if “the disease” of guilt, regret, repentance, or whatever is already manifest in that person. I think by the end he learns to approach people differently. I quite liked my theory and have been disappointed to read that the particular phrase was just one that stuck out to Verghese when he took the Hippocratic Oath himself! Did you find any meaning in the title?

When I closed the book, I found myself mulling over Shiva. Did he cause his own death? If he hadn’t slept with Genet, would the entire chain that led to Marion becoming ill have occurred? Or is it somehow Marion’s fault for loving Genet? Or is Genet to blame for asking what she did of Shiva, knowing what she did about Marion? It seemed to me Verghese was playing with these concepts of responsibility for one’s actions and of tracing an event back to its source. I find I am unable to assign blame, but the question keeps returning.

Finally, I couldn’t resist looking up a couple of the songs Marion talks about in Cutting for Stone. I love hearing the music listened to in a book. First, of course, is “Tizita,” both the slow and fast versions by Getachew Kassa mentioned on page 228 in my version. Then comes Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16,” which Marion and the Staff Probationer dance to in her room. (I didn’t know any before reading Cutting for Stone, but I like all three!)

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  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I am hoping to read this one soon, so I skipped all the spoilers. I have been hearing such amazing things about this book that I have a hard time believing that I haven’t made the time for it yet! I am glad this one entertained you so highly.

    • Erin

      Good plan! I thought it was excellent, and I hope you enjoy it. It would still be sitting on my TBR shelf if Reading Buddies hadn’t made me read it, so I definitely understand!

  • http://niranjana.wordpress.com Niranjana Iyer

    I have the book on my TBR, and if I’d known about Reading Buddies, I’d have bumped it up the list. I’ll revisit your review after I read the book!

    • Erin

      It’s excellent, I hope you can get to it soon! And I hope there’s something else on the Reading Buddies list that interests you, as I’d love to read something together.

  • http://sophisticateddorkiness.com Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    I didn’t read the post because of spoilers, but just wanted to say I’m excited to talk about Let the Great World Spin — I just finished it and enjoyed it quite a bit.

    • Erin

      Oh, nice! I hope you’ll join in the discussion, when we get to that point! I’m maybe a third of the way through on audio. It took me some time to get into it, but I’m enjoying it now.