The first page was startling. A Catholic nun dies giving birth to conjoined twins. And so begins the epic journey of Abraham Verghese's sweeping novel, Cutting for Stone.
The Stanford professor of medicine spent eight years writing the novel which begins in Ethiopia during the waning days of Emperor Haile Selassie's regime and ends, climactically, in a gritty urban hospital in New York City.
The critics have swooned. More than a million copies have been sold, and this week Cutting for Stone celebrates its 104th week on The New York Times' best seller list.
Good novels entertain you. Great novel transport you. I personally have to thank Abraham for giving me a reprieve from the economic malestrom of 2009. I started reading Cutting for Stone during the height of the downturn and it transported me elsewhere. It allowed me to escape the dreary financial angst of obsessing over the fate of my 401K.
The author, a friend, is one of the most unassuming people you could meet. Far from a braggadocio. He teaches medical students here at Stanford about a vanishing art: the hands-on bedside exam. He's trying to remind students that there's a human being in the bed behind the razzle-dazzle technology of today's medicine.
I recently asked Abraham if he ever imagined the novel would be so successful? He said:
The most honest answer is yes. I imagined it, tried to visualize it - in fact I had a poster made up for me eight years ago with a mock cover and it said, "60 weeks on the NYTimes list" among other things. And before I sat down to write, I would look at that cover and remind myself that I was aiming to write a big book. That I had big ambitions for the tale I wanted to tell. Now that is a far cry from knowing it would actually happen.
When I asked him how it felt to be on the Times list for so long, he told me:
I feel humbled by what has happened with the book and the way book clubs in particular have picked it up. Dorothy Allison, the great American writer, says that "fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives." I think there is some universal truth, some note that I hit with this story that resonates for a lot of people. It's just a wonderful thing.
So what's next?
I am taking my time, thinking of another story I might work on. I am not in a hurry. I love my day job and it serves as the inspiration for whatever comes next.
Previously: How Abraham Verghese writes, Hands on: Abraham Verghese teaches bedside skills, Abraham Verghese at Work: A New York Times profile, How a battle with Napoleon helped Abraham Verghese write his novel and Physicians turn to books to better understand patients, selves