This book is one of those that passed me right by when it released. I read all of the wonderful, glowing reviews, but the scope of the book never solidified in my mind. Something about orphaned twins, something about doctors, something about Africa. I never quite "got" what all the fuss was about, and that, combined with it's length (560 pages in hardcover), plus the fact I couldn't get it on audio, just got it pushed further down my list. Until the Heathrow Literary Society selected it as our June read.
So probably 80% of the reading world already knows this. The joke was on me. This amazing journey into Ethiopia's history, into twin-ness, into the human side of medicine, will most definitely be among my "best of" lists at the end of the year.
Synopsis: The lives of Sister Marie Joseph Praise, a devout missionary nun, and Thomas Stone, a quirky but enigmatic young doctor, intersect at Missing Hospital in a poor town in Ethiopia. Their destinies intertwined, they form a deep bond through the rigors of surgery as doctor and assistant. To everyone's surprise, one day Sister Praise goes into labor, and dies giving birth to conjoined twins, Marion and Shiva. Stone panics and disappears, leaving the boys effectively orphaned. Their stories are told in first person by Marion.
Two Indian doctors at Missing decide to marry and raise the boys as their own. Spanning decades, we witness Ethiopia's tumultuous history, the havoc it wreaks on the boys' lives, the medical challenges in a poor, third-world country, the notion of being predestined for a life in medicine, and the loving and sometimes violent community in which the boys are raised.
"A childhood in Missing imparted lessons about resilience, about fortitude, and about the fragility of life. I knew better than most children how little separated the world of health from that of disease, living flesh from the icy touch of the dead, the solid ground from treacherous bog."
When adolescent emotions cause a division between the twins, it is only when Marion becomes a surgeon himself and moves to New York that the strength of the boys' bonds are truly tested.
"Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. Yes, I have infinite faith in the craft of surgery, but no surgeon can heal the kind of wound that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed."
My thoughts: With grace and restrained passion, Verghese has created an epic story that very quickly swept me off my feet. Because of the first-person narrative from Marion, it immediately felt personal and intimate. Marion was a young man with heart and compassion, who admitted to his own inadequacies and fears, and it was impossible for me not to love him and everyone whom he loved in turn. The characterization, through Marion's eyes, was brilliant.
Knowing that Verghese was an accomplished physician himself, I went into the experience worrying that the prose might be too technical or too rigid. Instead, it was beautiful and refined, at times even breath-taking. (I know that sounds a little over-dramatic but it was.) Verghese used his medical knowledge to lend an air of authenticity to the dialogue, but never did it alienate me or make me feel lost or stupid. I really have never had an interest in cutting people open and repairing an intestine or transplanting a liver, but in this story I lived the miracle of saving lives, of attending the sick by listening and caring, and made a tiny part of me wish I could try.
Without being too mushy (no Disney endings here), this book had one of the biggest hearts you could find in modern fiction. A heart full of compassion, forgiveness, commitment, human spirit and love for mankind.
Reactions from the Heathrow Literary Society: Unanimously my book club loved this book with all of their being. One member called it a "masterpiece". Another, an accomplished reader, called it a book that would be in his top ten of all time. This type of reaction rarely happens (only once with "The Book Thief") and is a testament to the universality of this beautiful novel.
5 out of 5 stars