Literary Criticism and Significance

Published in 2009 by Vintage, Cutting for Stone is Abraham Verghese’s debut novel; he is also the author of My Own Country and The Tennis Partner, and he has written numerous articles for both medical and literary journals. A practiced physician, Verghese peppers his novel with medical details. A reviewer with Library Journal says:

The medical background is fascinating as the author delves into fairly technical areas of human anatomy and surgical procedure.

And readers are apparently enthralled by this story of medicine, family, love, and betrayal—Cutting for Stone became an international bestseller shortly after its publication and was listed on several well-known bestseller lists including those of The New York Times and Independent Booksellers. In 2009 the novel received the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s Award for Fiction, and in 2010 it received the Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Fiction given by the American Booksellers Association.

The title of the novel is based on a line in the Hippocratic oath:

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

New doctors must swear by this oath and thus adhere to a set of ethical standards during their practice, so the use of the oath in the title of the novel calls into question the ethics of the characters as they trudge through their complicated relationships.

Although the novel has been well received by its readership, critics argue that the novel is weighed down by its detail. In a book review in The New York Times, Erica Wagner says that in addition to the passionate use of medical details,

The novel is crippled, too, by the use of back story. There is a feeling of Greek drama about the narrative: a lot of the real action happens offstage.

Flashbacks to the early lives of characters and situations regarding the characters’ travels away from home distract from the essential, present-line story of Marion’s quest to find out the truth about his father, Thomas Stone, and the relationship Stone had with Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Nonetheless, Verghese’s prose still maintains the power to entice readers who are looking for a good story, and Susan Salter Reynolds writing for the Los Angeles Times argues that “in lesser hands, the melodrama would be irresistible,” and that Verghese develops characters and conflicts that maintain a sense of integrity.