Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese presents the story of two conjoined twins, from the recollections of one of the twins, Marion Praise Stone. His mother was a nun, his father was a surgeon, and his brother is Marion's mirror image. So, we begin.

I can't tell you what Cutting for Stone is about, anymore than I could tell you what The Old Man and the Sea is about. It builds in layers, as chapters slip away and years pass, we know we're building toward something, but the narrator never lets slip what is coming; the moment always presses urgently in. Everything is subtly foreshadowed; we see the past repeated by the younger generation.

Cutting for Stone is about being a man; being at once a brother, a son, a doctor. It is about being profoundly broken and living anyway. I love stories that can contain their own immensity. Verghese makes that look effortless.

Above all, I think it's a book about relationships, and, for Verghese, relationships manifest as sex. There's a lot of sex in here: we meet two different nuns who have sex (in bizarrely dissimilar ways with bizarrely similar partners), the twins, their foster parents, the girl who grew up with the twins, her mother, and a former prostitute; I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting, but either way, that's fornication on a biblical scale.

Strikingly (I think) only the twins' foster parents have entered into any kind of marriage contract (and theirs functions more like an annual marriage lease). No one else has any sense of permanency.

As I was reading, I was struck again and again that if only the women had resisted sex, everyone could have lived long and happy lives. Verghese's men are either saints or atavistic, and neither group really has a choice in their sex lives. . One twin is abstinent, while the other cannot comprehend an emotional or spiritual component of sex.

It is the women who have all the control, from the nuns with their vows, to Hema (who reduces Ghosh to tongue-tied inaction), to Genet (who stands as Delilah to Marion's Samson again and again). It is a woman, a former prostitute who, well-intendedly, sets the novel's denouement in motion.

All this sex has consequences. I understand Verghese's aim, explicitly stated at several moments: to show how our actions produce consequences that follow us. As a proper tragedy, all our efforts to forestall those consequences only makes the retribution that much more spectacular. But within that is the story of a young man who grows up in a time and a place that is so dysfunctional that he doesn't realize how damaged everyone around him is, and he doesn't understand how that damage conditions him. Marion, as the narrator, can hardly talk about how bizarre the world is because it seems normal to him.

In a time of stunted possibilities, what do we do? We make choices, even if they are bad ones, ones that deny others the chance to make a choice, so that we can preserve some illusion of control.

Book 22 of my book a week challenge.

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