I started this book…last summer?…because the work book club was reading it. I really enjoyed it at first, but for some reason I bogged down in the middle because a) it was due back at the library and b) I was really frustrated with Marion, the protagonist, and some members of his family that annoyed me. Then I had to wait forever for it to come around on the holds list again, and stop being mad at Marion (because as my father always says, you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family, so poor Marion is stuck), and finally finish it off.
Basically, this is a love story about a man who is madly in love with both his profession and his country, while also thinking he is in love with a woman, but he’s really in love with his idea of a relationship with that woman, so that doesn’t work out. If you can get past being embarrassed for Marion over his one-sided, nearly imaginary relationship with a girl he grows up with, it’s actually a great coming-of-age story. We begin in Ethiopia at a hospital called Missing (Mission Hospital, actually, but no one calls it that). Marion is the son of an English surgeon and an Indian nun who work there. He and his twin were born unexpectedly – the nun never told anyone that she was pregnant, and their father was a blackout drinker and had no idea they’d ever consummated their relationship. There are complications, she dies, their father leaves Ethiopia in shock and grief, and the boys are taken in by another doctor at the hospital. Once the boys have a family, the story takes flight.
When the boys are about to finish high school – Marion plans to go to medical school and Shiva just wants to be done – there is a pivotal event that changes the life of Genet, the girl Marion loves. Shiva does something that hurts Marion deeply, and sets a whole sequence of events into motion that I can’t describe without ruining the story. Suffice it to say, Marion leaves Shiva by stages – first moving out of their shared bedroom, then out of the country to finish medical training in the United States. How they reconnect, what happens to Genet, what happens to their adopted parents and what happened to their missing father – it’s all out in the open by the end. I still am not quite sure I forgive Marion for being quite so stupid about Genet, but it was definitely worth reading the book despite his romantic ineptitude.
After I finished the book, I looked on Amazon and saw that it is reviewed there by John Irving. I found this funny, because throughout the book I kept comparing it in style to a John Irving novel. (Something about the grand scope of following someone from early childhood on, and feeling like you’ve become part of their life by the end. Plus all of the medical parts.) If you’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Cider House Rules, Marion is very like both John Wheelwright and Homer Wells (and if I think about it too much, Shiva is rather like Owen Meany in the sense that he holds so much sway over Marion even when he isn’t present, and because he is odd and no one but Marion truly “gets” him). So if you like Irving, or Charles Dickens, or Thomas Hardy or any of those long rambling life story writers, you’ll probably like it.
Oh – and don’t be fooled by the history of the Ethiopian revolution while reading this. The events of the story follow the spirit but not the letter of the actual historic events. So you’ll get an idea of what life was like in Ethiopia at the time, but don’t take the story’s events as fact.