Cutting for Stone. Abraham Verghese.

Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. Vintage Toronto 2009. F; 03/12.

I come at this one with my usual envious mixed feelings reading a successful doctor who is also a very successful writer. It is hard to completely clear away the stems and skins of my sour grapes. As literature, all the way through I had trouble deciding whether it was mostly medical whodunit, political-historic fiction, love story, lost child reunion with parent, or coming-of-age. These things are all there. The trouble is that none of them completely comes off, so we jump from one to the other, dazzled at the huge variety, but never quite able to get our feet solidly on the ground or comfortably into the mud.

The medical plot brings the world’s greatest surgeons by chance into the same OR in a historic operation to save the hero’s life. Improbable? Wildly. The politics are Ethiopian and a bit formulaic-reminiscent of you-name-it third world tyrant versus the downtrodden. Main character’s adoration for his childhood sweetheart (which turns him into a late-life virgin and eventually nearly kills him) doesn’t quite add up for me; the motivation that keeps him away from other girls isn’t there to balance the heat of their early contact. There’s a thrilling moment where main character is assisting at a life-saving trauma operation, and somebody anonymous with huge and unquestioned authority walks in behind him and comments on what a great job is being done, that authority turning out to be long-lost daddy, and although that raises the hair on the back of my neck, the relationship with the famous dad finally fails to satisfy. Unless of course we’re aching for another dose of Olympian medical mystique.

The coming-of-age works best. It certainly takes him a long time, and rings true with three steps forward and two back along the way. But once again what’s finally delivered as his success, and what we are asked to be satisfied with, is medical.

I eventually can’t avoid seeing this story as another narcissistic American professional-saint-cum-technical-genius testimonial about how mystical the professional calling is, implying that only certain special people (whose parents were doctors, who knew in their guts they had to be physicians by the age of five) can survive the rigors of training, to say nothing of all that technology, blood, and guts.

Dr Verghese isn’t perfect. To make matters worse, the tone mashes together tough kid, boy-genius nerd, professor, and half a dozen other voices that don’t end up singing in the same key.

But for an American clinical leader, with the time and energy I know that must involve, to do what he did in this novel is astonishing. I guess his next one will tell the tale on the literary side. Or maybe the one after that. 7.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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