Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Is this old-school fiction, or is it obsolete? Is it wilfully over the top, or is it genuinely thrilling for its readers? I'm not sure what you'll think of it, but this is a longish review. If the length troubles you, good luck finishing this monster of a book.

Noted fiction reviewer
Plenty of love has been lavished on this book since its initial publication, enough that the softcover edition comes complete with four pages of quoted praise (and five back-cover blurbs as well). Particularly egregious among them is the LA Times, whose reviewer absurdly compares Verghese's unending 650-page beast to something Cormac McCarthy might write. (And suggests that somehow, the book's so good you might read all 650 pages in a single sitting. With a catheter, one assumes, and a team of support staff.)

The clear winner of the bad review, though, is Richard Eyre in the Sunday Telegraph, who compares Verghese favourably not just to Chekhov but to Shakespeare: it's too much to hope for, I think, that he means Pavel Chekhov and Nicholas Shakespeare, but honestly, and I hate to belabour the length issue, but how can you possibly say that a novel this size compares to the tautness of a five-act, three-hour play? Or its writer to a playwright capable of writing so many tightly packed masterpieces of comedy as well as tragedy?

Mind you, I've been unable to track down Eyre's actual review, so maybe it's a one-liner or a "buy this book to give away at Christmas" remark, so who knows.

And reviewers without the stamp of professionalism have loved them some Verghese as well, to the point that I had trouble finding objections to it online. Erica Wagner in the Times, bless her, called for an actual editor to work with Verghese on his next novel, and Aida Edemariam wrote in the Guardian in partial opposition to Eyre's laudatory review, but Verghese's got some disciples out there otherwise.

It took me only a few pages before I got cranky with the prose style, with the descriptions, with what felt to me like predictable trappings of fiction about postcolonial countries (especially ones where colonialism remains part of the picture). I was annoyed by the wildly erratic personifications of technology (the autoclave, for example), the catalogues of trust-me-i-know-this-place details (plants, for example, or surgical tools). I was irritated by the first-person narrator aiming so utterly, so consumingly, at self-knowledge and self-exposure, clearly delighting so much in the prose through which he was building his first-person world and yet allegedly unaware of himself as Artist.

And it's a small point, but battered and small old buildings, no matter their construction material, do not look like they appeared as a function of the same geologic change that created the imposing range of mountains behind them. Judge me harshly, if you loved this image on the very first page.

I kept reading, though, and it's a moving novel, no doubt about it. I wept not, neither did I laugh, but I could imagine other readers weeping at it. It's old-school fiction, and there's something admirable about that. There's nothing new about it in formal terms, nothing whatsoever, and I kept imagining echoes of Salman Rushdie's dizzyingly inventive Midnight's Children, beside which Cutting for Stone is a formulaic, predictable slog.

This novel is a great example of popular historical fiction, but it's also just a wordy and over-long sequence of "and then after that, I..." passages. Enough people like that sort of thing that it's done really well in terms of its sales, and too few reviewers have the time, energy, and expertise to parse through the great from the apparently great.

Cutting for Stone looks not un-great. But lord, it's not great.


David L. said…
"Genuinely thrilling for its readers ... the book's ... a ... clear winner. .... It took me only a few pages before I ... was .... delighting ... in the prose. ... Cutting for Stone is .... great ... in terms of its ... energy and expertise."

--Richard Pickard, Book Addiction
richard said…
I very nearly laughed OL on that one, good sir! I appreciated all those ellipses, too. But honestly, why on earth is this rough thing so very well reviewed?!?
Fraser said…
My theory is that people can get lazy, and just ASSUME that it's good, because it's hitting some particular formula about exotic locations and remarkable people doing illogical things.

Rather than, you know, reading it.
richard said…
Right! Exactly. My favourite review online of the novel - though I'm not hunting for it again - went on about how the reviewer never did figure out what the title Cutting for Stone referred to. Presumably the discussion of the Hippocratic Oath wasn't clear enough. Or, you know, the last name of three main characters.
Fraser said…
Really, what? They didn't get the title? But... no, what? Was it "for" that threw them off?
richard said…
Well, darn it, I can't find it now, but the person loved the book. I'm thinking asleep at the wheel for a few pages, maybe.

Want to read something odd? Try here for a startlingly positive review, really a disturbingly positive review.
Espana said…
This high caliber, moving novel begins and ends with very difficult surgeries. While very technical, this beautifully written story of family, love, life, loyalties and compassion is rich in detail, huge in heart, and very insightful. The story shows different perspectives of cultural diversity and moves from India to Ethiopia to a hospital in New York City over decades and generations.
Marion said…
"Cutting for Stone" was a fascinating, gripping story that held me from first page to last. Unfortunately, I felt let down in the end because, unless I missed a vital part altogether, I never quite understood why Dr Stone disappeared during/after the birth of his sons, or if he had been aware of their mother's death and the infants' survival. I was also left wondering how she was able to completely disguise the fact that she was full-term pregnant with twins! The book also seemed to be full of happy (and unhappy) coincidences, but the author's descriptions of medical conditions and surgical procedures were very interesting. Enjoyable. I agree with Espanas' comments.

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