From the very first pages, I heard echoes of John Irving in Verghese’s first novel: the exotic setting, strangers in a strange land, and unbelievable (and yet SO believable!) twists of fate. Imagine–a British doctor and an Indian nun work together in Ethiopian mission. Sister Mary Joseph Praise finds herself pregnant with Dr. Thomas Stone’s baby, and dies giving birth to Siamese twin boys. Stone, attending the birth only in the latter moments of Sister’s life, attempts to save her by (unsuccessfully) crushing one of the baby’s skulls. The mission’s obstetrician arrives at the last moment, safely delivering the twins by C-section. The boys’ conjoinment, it turns out, is minor–they are attached only by the flap of flesh on their foreheads that is easily detached.
Preposterous. Yet totally reasonable in this convincing novel. The story of Marion and Shiva Stone is a riot of Ethiopian sounds and smells and tastes and
sights. Stone, devastated at Mary’s death, leaves the mission with only the clothes on his back, and isn’t heard from again for twenty-some years. Indian obstetrician Hemlatha is at one of life’s crossroads, and fostering the boys, mothering the boys, gives her a life she dared not imagine. Hema and internist-cum-surgeon Ghosh (who is Stone’s replacement in more ways than one) create a family and find joy in each other. The boys share a magical bond–Marion, ever practical and often altruistic; Shiva, a genius who lives in the moment with seemingly little concern for others.
Events and a woman (isn’t it always a woman?) find Marion in New York, finishing his internship at an inner city hospital. Rudderless, Marion tries to reconnect with his Beatrice, only to have that connection bring him close to death. It is Shiva who comes to Marion’s rescue, along with Hema and Thomas Stone. N0 spoiler alert here–but suffice it to say, with only 75 pages to the end my guess as to who would die was wrong.
If I have any criticism of the novel, it is that Verghese leaned a little too heavily on medical technicalities; I didn’t need to know quite so much about the repair of fistulas or TB or even cirrhosis of the liver. I’m guessing the doctor in the author (for he IS one of those physician authors) got the better of him at times! And near the end, when, say, I STILL couldn’t figure out how the novel would end, I did tire of the plot twists–every corner I turned, it seemed, held another gut-wrenching event. But I reminded myself that Irving writes in much the same manner, seems preposterous himself at times, and still brings me back for more.
It was not without surprise, then, that as I read the author’s meticulous acknowledgments I found the following: “I am grateful to John Irving for his friendship all these years. I have learned so much from him both in our correspondence and in his published work.” Abraham Verghesse has obviously done more than one successful internship, and his mentor’s influence shines brightly.
Next up: finish my February New Yorker! This was a long one at 657 pages.