My rating: 3 of 5 stars
After reading such an impressive debut novel, I’ve decided that my star rating and a book’s technical quality live in separate universes. Technically, Verghese’s knowledge blows me away–to be able to weave his fine historical research about Italians in Ethiopia, culture, nationalism, and medicine into an emotionally compelling story is a five-star accomplishment. So is carrying a story across two continents and forty years.
The writing is sometimes almost intentionally bland, perhaps because to turn too many lyrical somersaults in a line would muddy up the clear waters of erudition. Verghese’s skill with artistic language resides in his metaphors, instead; he writes like a good professor teaches–by illustration, giving us new eyes for his subject. For example: “If the beating heart is pure theater, a playful, moody, extroverted organ cavorting the chest, then the liver, sitting under the diaphragm, is a figurative painting, stolid and silent.” And he must educate the reader: because to understand the protagonist, Marion, you must understand what he loves, from medicine to Addis Ababa.
Yet for so much spectacular jinking through the library aisles, Cutting for Stone is a remarkably quiet story about a son’s reconciliation with the surgeon father who abandoned him. I wound up with a three-star reaction because in the heart of this most important story, Marion, the son and first-person narrator, feels obscure to the reader. As he meets his father for the first time near the novel’s climax, the writing acquires a clubfooted gait, pounding it into our heads that Marion is angry. The curiosity that infuses his voice as a narrator withers, and commits something very close to a violation of the cardinal rule of fiction, and tells rather than shows. In a tome of a novel, it was disappointing to find a dead spot at the heart of a character’s identity-giving emotional conflict.
Maybe because of it, I was glad to finally be done with the book. It deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it, including its share from me. Yet it is not one of the novels that have affected me the most, and my reaction to it is equal parts admiration for a fine-grained story world; and the fond memory of picking it up for a fiver on a table of used books in the French Quarter, and then finding a home for it on my bookshelf, from which it is unlikely to be disturbed again.