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What I'm Reading and Watching: Cutting for Stone and The Painted Veil

We don't get out much, so perhaps it's no surprise that neither Peter nor I had heard of The Painted Veil. We rented it based upon the trailer, and we weren't disappointed. It's a beautiful film. It's a pretty simple story: husband, who is also a doctor (played by Ed Norton) and wife, who is eager to get away from her mother (played by Naomi Watts) move to China. Wife has an affair. Husband gets mad and moves with wife to a cholera infected town. In the midst of national politics, local custom, an orphanage run by French nuns, and the constant threat of death, husband and wife have to figure out their marriage and themselves. The cinematography is gorgeous. The acting is great. And the story is both simple and profound, as any good story should be.

The next day, I started Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, a novel set mostly in Ethiopia, tracing a family from its origins in India to a hospital in Addis to the United States. Verghese is a doctor, and he brings his knowledge of Ethiopia and of medicine to the page, portraying the heroic efforts of doctors in developing nations seeking to care for patients with any number of horrendous ills. But his skill goes far beyond making medical details accessible. Verghese weaves together a mysterious and beautiful love story that spans many years and three continents. It is about the love of two brothers, Marion and Shiva, twins. The love of Hema and Ghosh, their parents, who adopt them after their mother dies in childbirth and their father abandons them. There are other loves–Marion's first romantic love, his love for his country, for medicine. And Verghese's own love for language shines through on every page.

What interested me in both The Painted Veil and Cutting for Stone is the treatment of religion. In The Painted Veil, the main characters are not believers, but there is a goodness present in the nuns, and a nod to God's presence in and through all people. "Where duty and love meet, there is grace," says one of the nuns. The whole film is a film about grace, about the violence and beauty and sorrow and joy of grace. In Cutting for Stone, nuns also play a prominent and positive role, loving people through prayer and faith as well as through arduous hospital work. But in addition to these Catholic women, we meet Coptic Christians who practice a blend of folk religion and faith in Christ. And we also see Hema, a Hindu, calling upon every god in her pantheon at various turns, and receiving specific answers to prayer, particularly when she prays to the spirit of her children's dead mother. The portrayal of God here is complex and mysterious. At times, God's absence seems incontrovertible. And then He answers a prayer, in a specific, undeniable manner. Cutting for Stone makes an argument for God's inscrutability and providence, even as it makes no pronouncement about the truth of any particular religious system.

Both this film and this novel are worth watching/reading simply for the stories they tell and the power with which they tell them. The spiritual themes make them all the more rich. I highly recommend them both.

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