Abraham Verghese's novel, “Cutting for Stone” was one of many books lugged back from New York City in an overweight suitcase by Richmond Junior Leaguers looking for prospects for the 65th annual Book and Author Dinner.
The dinner is among the longest-running events of its kind in the United States, raising money for such organizations as the YMCA's Bright Beginnings and the Southside Child Development Center, among others.
It's easy to see how Verghese made the cut, joining the esteemed ranks of Book and Author participants such as Jodi Picoult, Robert Frost and Cokie Roberts. His is an epic novel that begins with a pregnant nun giving birth to conjoined twins in a mission hospital in Ethiopia. The physical stalk connecting the baby boys is severed at birth, but the complex bonds between the brothers while they suffer political upheaval, betrayal and exile weave a multilayered story with a surprising element: the practice of medicine. The inner topography of the human body is described with the prose of an artist and the startling precision of a surgeon, forming a backdrop for an exploration of the equally complex terrain of the human soul.
That medicine is a driving force in the novel is not surprising, given Dr. Verghese's day job. He's a professor for the theory and practice of medicine at Stanford University and a senior associate chairman of its Department of Internal Medicine. Born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, he was forced to leave his country and medical school after a military coup, resuming his education years later in India. Of his dual career, he says, “People make a lot out of the whole doctor-writer business, and I'm not always sure why.”
His path with the pen began after treating HIV patients in Tennessee in the mid-1980s when AIDS was a death sentence and there was little a doctor could do for the dying patients. He found some relief by writing fiction, where he could make the world come out as he liked. Eventually he applied to and was accepted by the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop.
“At the time,” he says, “I felt very justified in taking some sort of break. And the urge that came over me, almost my birth as a writer I think, was to try and describe this extraordinary thing that I was going through.” Yet he regrets the decision, feeling it cost him his first marriage, resulting in his separation from the lives of his two small boys.
Now he attempts to balance writing, family and work. A renowned part of his curriculum at Stanford teaches the value of a compassionate bedside manner and hands-on physical examination. For him, medicine is a calling and an art. Verghese says that “there always was a romance and passion and drama that was very much in the tradition of medicine, and that somehow the emphasis on science and technology, wonderful as they are, has robbed of us of some of our sense of romance.”
With its themes of separation, deep passion for medicine and the compassionate care of patients, “Cutting for Stone” weaves elements of his work and life together. “Medicine is life in many ways,” Verghese says. “Everything that transpires within a medical career is life plus, if you will. There's death and tragedy and suffering and happiness. I have a strong conviction that medicine as a career can save people, but it can also destroy people in many ways, and I hope the book illustrates that and also illustrates how redemption comes through love and through family.” It is the reader's fortune that he does just that.
Abraham Verghese will join authors Phyllis Theroux, Dean King, Noah Boyd, Sarah Blake and Sam Beall at the 65th annual Book and Author Dinner on May 4 at 7 p.m. For information and tickets, go to jlrichomnd.org.