There’s a mystery, a coming-of-age, abundant melodrama and even more abundant medical lore in this idiosyncratic first novel from a doctor best known for the memoir My Own Country (1994).
The nun is struggling to give birth in the hospital. The surgeon (is he also the father?) dithers. The late-arriving OB-GYN takes charge, losing the mother but saving her babies, identical twins. We are in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1954. The Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, was a trained nurse who had met the British surgeon Thomas Stone on a sea voyage ministering to passengers dying of typhus. She then served as his assistant for seven years. The emotionally repressed Stone never declared his love for her; had they really done the deed? After the delivery, Stone rejects the babies and leaves Ethiopia. This is good news for Hema (Dr. Hemalatha, the Indian gynecologist), who becomes their surrogate mother and names them Shiva and Marion. When Shiva stops breathing, Dr. Ghosh (another Indian) diagnoses his apnea; again, a medical emergency throws two characters together. Ghosh and Hema marry and make a happy family of four. Marion eventually emerges as narrator. “Where but in medicine,” he asks, “might our conjoined, matricidal, patrifugal, twisted fate be explained?” The question is key, revealing Verghese’s intent: a family saga in the context of medicine. The ambition is laudable, but too often accounts of operations—a bowel obstruction here, a vasectomy there—overwhelm the narrative. Characterization suffers. The boys’ Ethiopian identity goes unexplored. Shiva is an enigma, though it’s no surprise he’ll have a medical career, like his brother, though far less orthodox. They become estranged over a girl, and eventually Marion leaves for America and an internship in the Bronx (the final, most suspenseful section). Once again a medical emergency defines the characters, though they are not large enough to fill the positively operatic roles Verghese has ordained for them.
A bold but flawed debut novel.