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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

cutting-for-stone1Cutting for Stone is an engaging and witty novel about the traumatic origins of twin brothers who grew up in the shadows of a hospital in Ethiopia.  Losing their mother and being abandoned by their father, they were raised by two physicians who instilled in them a love of medicine.  Despite their bond, the twins could not be more different.   However, it is their genetic similarities that gives life to one of them, but in the process destroys the other.

Summary from

The story is a riveting saga of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, born of a tragic union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, and bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.But it’s love, not politics — their passion for the same woman — that will tear them apart and force Marion to flee his homeland and make his way to America, finding refuge in his work at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him, wreaking havoc and destruction, Marion has to entrust his life to the two men he has trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

Book Club Party Ideas for Cutting for Stone

Gold flowers to represent meskel flowers, a white cardigan draped over a chair, a scalpel and a finger in a jar tie together many of the themes in Cutting for Stone.  For the finger in a jar, I cut the finger off a hand I bought for Halloween and, since the fluid in the jar was described as “amber” (page 37), I added a few drops of yellow and red food coloring to the jar.

Cutting for Stone,Abraham Verghese,scalpel,golden flowers,finger in jar

Welcome your guests with the smell of incense, which Hema lit each morning (page 386).

Sister Mary Joseph Praise tacked up a calendar print of Bernini’s famous sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila, called Ecstasy of St. Teresa.  When I looked at this picture I felt like it said so much about Sister Mary Joseph Praise.   Below is a poster print of the statue.

Ecstasy of St. Theresa

The descriptions of the Ethiopian restaurants can provide some inspirations for decorations.   At one restaurant, they sat on rough-hewn, three legged wooden stools, low to the ground, with a woven basket table between them (page 456).  The waitress gave Marion a gursha, or hand feeding.  At the Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba “the wooden floor was strewn with freshly cut grass, just as it would have been if this were a home or restaurant in Addis.”

To get ideas for  Ethiopian decor and to taste authentic Ethiopian food, I went to Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant in Austin, Texas.

Aster's Ethiopian Restaurant,Austin,TX

Ethiopian Decorations

Ethiopian Decorations

In Cutting for Stone, Marion says that every Ethiopian restaurant he went to in America had posters with the same caption:  Thirteen Months of Sunshine.   Lo and behold, look what was hanging on the wall at Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant.

Ethiopian Poster, Thirteen months of sunshine

Book Club Menu for Cutting For Stone

Aster’s was the first Ethiopian food I had ever tasted.   It was delicious!!   Aster’s provides catering and if there is an Ethiopian restaurant near you, that might be an option to allow your guests to taste authentic Ethiopian food.

Our waitress had only been in America for 10 months and she enjoyed telling us all about their customs.  I asked her if it was okay if I took some pictures and she laughed saying “Americans…every time they see something new, they have to take a picture.”   Click. I took a picture of the menu.

Aster's Ethiopian Restaurant Menu Austin

Spices used in Ethiopian cooking include coriander, ginger, garlic, curry, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seed and chili powder (page 184).

The Ethiopian food eaten in Cutting for Stone, includes doro-wot, a red chicken curry cooked in berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix.   “The wot came poured onto the soft crepelike injera and there would be more rolls of injera which Hema would use to scoop up the meat” (page 80).

Injera is a sour tasting bread made from teff, a tiny grain from Ethiopia.  “A woman sold bundles of eucalyptus leaves used as fuel for making injera-the pancakelike food made from a grain, tef.  Farther on Hema saw a little girl pour batter on a huge flat griddle which sat on three bricks with a fire underneath.  When the injera was ready, it would be peeled off like a tablecloth, then folded once, twice and once more, and stored in a basket.” (page 75).  (Many of the words were spelled different ways depending on the source).

At the Queen of Sheba restaurant, there was a tray of injera topped with generous servings of lamb, lentils and chicken. (page 470).

At Aster’s, we tried the doro-wott (on the left), tibbs (beef sauteed in kibe (page 186) which is Ethiopian butter) and a vegetarian platter.

Doro-Wot, Tibbs, Cutting for Stone,Abraham Verghese

Vegetarian platter,Ethiopian food

Our waitress gave us lessons on how to eat the food using the injera as a utensil.  You break a small piece off and use all your fingers to swirl it around in your food and then pick up a bite.   I was so proud of myself because I was able to get a big bite of food without getting my fingers dirty.  The waitress yelled “No!  Get your fingers in there!  More!”  She had a heavy accent, but I think she said that it adds to the flavor (?).

They do not use napkins in Ethiopia, but rather wait until they are done eating and then wash their hands with water.   Compulsively, we wiped our hands after each bite and ended up using 5 napkins each.  Towards the end though, I was able to just leave my hand dirty…at least until after the next bite.

Cutting for Stone,Abraham Verghese,injera

Tej is a mead or honey wine with a golden yellow color which is flavored with the powdered leaves and twigs of gesho.  It is typically served in a rounded vase shaped flask, which closely resembles the flasks we would use to heat chemicals over a Bunsen burner in organic chemistry.  I found an easy recipe from Ethiopian Recipes, but there are some home brew recipes as well.

Tej, Ethiopian Honey Wine

It is believed that coffee was discovered in what is now Ethiopia.  Click here for a description of a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  During this ceremony the coffee beans are roasted, ground with a mortar and pestle, boiled and then poured into your cup.  The fresh roast taste must be amazing!  To serve the Ethiopian coffee, place sugar in small cups without handles and then pour the coffee into the cup.

In Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese talks about the Italian influence on Ethiopia and mentions some bars serve cannoli, biscotti, chocolate cassata (page 122).   I decided to give the chocolate cassata cake a try…something I will come to regret.

A cassata is traditionally made with round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a chocolate or vanilla filling similar to cannoli cream.  It sounded delicious but instead of making this time-consuming cake how it is traditionally done, I decided I wanted to spend the next 5 hours making little individual cakes.   I used a silicone cupcake pan to make little round cakes that I then layered with the ricotta cheese filling.

Ethiopian coffee with the chocolate cassata was an amazing combination.  A scalpel cut the cassata beautifully.

Ethiopian Coffee,chocoate cassata,scalpel

Book Club Resources

Book Reviews

Cutting for Stone is one of those books which is impossible to put down. Here is a lush, emotional, intelligent and compelling novel written by an accomplished story teller.” –  CaribousMom

“A saga about love, medicine, and exile, this debut reads like a modern Odyssey.”
—Good Housekeeping

“A marvel of a first novel. Verghese’s generosity of spirit is beautifully embodied in this gripping family saga that brings mid-century Ethiopia to vivid life. The practice of medicine is like a spiritual calling in this book, and the unforgettable people at its center bring passion and nobility—not to mention humor and humility—to the ancient art, while living an unforgettable story of love and betrayal and forgiveness. It’s wonderful.”
—Ann Packer

Discussion Questions for Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

  1. How does the title of the book tie into the story?  Is there another title that you think would be more fitting?
  2. Why was it so hard for Marion to move on from Genet?
  3. What do you think brought Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Thomas Stone together?  If things had turned out differently, could you imagine they would have been good parents to the twins?  Were they better off being raised by Hema and Ghosh?
  4. How did the setting of Ethiopia add to the intrigue of the novel?
  5. How do the approaches to illness differ between Ethiopia and your country?  Which approach is more comforting in time of illness?
  6. When Thomas Stone tells the story of his childhood, do you understand, and perhaps like him, more?

About the Author

Abraham Verghese’s web site
Other Books by Abraham Verghese

Additional Resources

Here are some of the books that Abraham Verghese listed in his acknowledgments:  Teresa of Avila:  The Progress of a Soul by Cathleen Medwick, Dark Star Safari:  Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux, and Aphorisms and Quotations for the Surgeon by Moshe Schein.

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Feel free to add your ideas, comments or book review below.

  1. As the author, I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see this!! The finger in the jar is a great touch.

    all best and thanks for spreading the word. Cutting for Stone is such a word of mouth book and I am most grateful for what you are doing

    Abraham Verghese

    Stanford, CA

    Comment by abraham verghese

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful book! I did my internship in Johnson City and I am looking forward to reading My Own Country.

    It’s the rare person that discovers not just one, but two callings in his life.

    Comment by Lisa

  3. A beautiful novel! I bet you just gobbled this one up, Dr. Lisa!

    Comment by Annie

  4. Thank you so much for all of the great ideas. I am planning to use a lot of them at my book club’s potluck dinner/book discussion next week. Another food that I might use for a book tie-in is LIVER pate as an appetizer.

    Comment by Karen

  5. Karen- Liver pate…that is creative!

    Comment by Lisa