|Noted fiction reviewer|
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.