When I picked up this wonderfully researched and evocative novel, my knowledge of Ethiopia was woefully limited. Within a few pages, Abraham Verghese drew me in to a world of struggle and fear, love and compassion. Largely set in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, the book tells the story of Marion and Shiva Price Stone, twin sons of a beautiful Indian nun and an intense but brilliant surgeon. In the early chapters, we learn of their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s abandonment. The author is an accomplished physician (Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford), and the story of the twins’ birth is full of details that add to the vividness of the scene. Indeed, Dr. Verghese’s medical knowledge is a constant throughout the book, providing a sense of authenticity to the story without dragging it down with technical information. It certainly does not read like a text book.
The book seems to jump around a bit at the beginning, so it took me awhile to connect to the characters. Once settled in to the story of Marion and Shiva’s unusual childhood in the care of the small staff of the hospital, it is riveting. The disparate personnel come together to form a family bond that is tight and complex, and wonderful. The relationship of the brothers is fascinating, and the culture, both of the hospital and the larger country, is portrayed in a compelling and compassionate fashion. Matron, the calm and inspiring director of the hospital, sets the tone – she is a woman who lives her life with great pragmatism, and the tales of her dealings with both the local authorities and the foreign mission groups who provide financial support were minor details in the book, but small moments that I particularly enjoyed. Similarly, I loved the images of a country about which I knew little, and which I could picture from the scenes that Dr. Verghese wrote with great clarity. He gave just enough historical detail to provide the necessary context for the story and the very human characters who populate it.
My only real quibble with this book is that, while the first two thirds is richly detailed, telling the story fully, this is not sustained in the last section. I felt that, once Marion left Ethiopia for America, I was anxious for more – the story almost moved along too fast. In spite of this, I was hooked until the final paragraph and plan to read Abraham Verghese’s other books, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner.