Verghese’s first foray into the world of fiction (after two successful non-fiction projects) takes the reader into the world of Ethiopa and medicine, a world which Verghese actually had experienced and which makes the novel much more autobiographical than I had expected. It was also a lot more medical than I had expected (which was a bonus).
The plot is of two twin brothers (twins again!) who are raised in a small hospital in Ethiopia by friends of their parents. Their mother has died during childbirth, and their father has run off somewhere. Instead, the two boys are raised by the hospital OB/GYN doc, Hema, and her partner, another doc at the same hospital, called Ghosh.
Over the years, the reader is introduced to very different characters of the twins, and yet, despite their differences, they both have a large interest in medicine with each of them following different paths to their end destination. However, their time in Ethiopia is interrupted by civil unrest when their Emperor is deposed and a military government takes over. At the same time, one of their childhood friends does a terroristic act with huge consequences for the boys. This same friend was also one of the causes of the
boys developing a huge rent in their relationship, a tear that is not repaired until later in their lives under stressful circumstances. So we have love, betrayal, loyalty, destiny – all wonderful aspects of this story.
This is a well written novel with a detailed cast of characters that inhabit several different countries. As Verghese is a physician, the story is peppered with medical references, but this is done as such an integral part of the story that it all flows together really well. (I was never once struck with the notion that Verghese wears his knowledge
Additionally, this is not only a good familial drama to read about, but also a love story with several different levels: parental, sibling, romantic. I really enjoyed the different aspects of the story – the many different stories that were woven together so skillfully. Several reviews have called the book “Dickensian” in its scope and its cast, and this is very accurate to me. It is a book with a huge range of characters who engage in dramatic events with the coincidences of a Victorian novel. However, it’s also very twenty-first century at the same time: the contrast of practice of medicine in a developing country and a Western country, the characters of the two boys, how world events impact their lives…
The only downside for me as a reader (and this might have been the reader’s fault) was that the book was hard to put down, but once put down, I found it quite difficult to pick it up again. There is no rational reason for this – I really enjoyed the story when I was actually reading it – but I didn’t feel compelled to pick it up at every free moment to find out how the story went. I really don’t think that this was the fault of the author as it was really well written and structured. I think that it was more of a mental block on my part about this book being so LONG. Epic novels with lots of pages unnecessarily intimidate me at times and is often one of the main reasons that I will not pick up long books. If they were published in smaller volumes, there would be no problems, but with more than six hundred pages in one huge volume, it was a big commitment from me. (Yes, I know this is mulish, but there you go.)
However, as I mentioned, once I was reading it, the story really pulled me in with realistic narrators and realistic action. I have read Verghese’s earlier non-fiction books, which were just as good and interesting so I knew to expect good things. He really is a good writer.
So – good book. Good story. Well written. Bravo.