Inside Hospital Walls
Almost all of the action of Cutting for Stone takes place within one of two hospitals. The characters live apart from the societies that their hospitals serve. While outside there is chaos, danger, and poverty, inside of both Missing and Our Lady, the world is regulated by science and medicine.
Most of Cutting for Stone takes place in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Even so, the majority of the characters are considered ferengi, foreigners, and that's because most of them were either born elsewhere or were born to immigrant parents. So it's fitting that they all take refuge in the hospital they call "Missing." The name seems strange, because it's "really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like 'Missing'" (P.6).
Translation: the novel's setting is an unpronounceable hospital filled with foreigners.
Besides the corruption of Mission to Missing, the hospital's name also constantly reminds us that, error or not, everyone there is "missing" someone or someplace. The loneliness of the foreigners is part of the setting.
Missing, according to Marion, is a fertile place, a sort of paradise:
"Missing sat on a verdant rise, the irregular cluster of whitewashed one- and two-story buildings looking as if they were pushed up from the ground in the same geologic rumble that created the Entoto Mountains. Troughlike flower beds, fed by the runoff from the roof gutters, surrounded the squat buildings like a moat. Matron Hirst's roses overtook the walls, the crimson blooms framing every window and reaching to the roof." (P.4)
Marion sees Missing as an organic, natural thing, not an artificial building. It seems to grow up out of the ground, and it supports the plants that grow on its territory with plenty of fertile soil. It's also a good place for the narrator to grow up; it's his paradise. It's almost as if because Marion has been out of place his whole life, being "missing" just feels natural to him.
In comparison to Missing, Our Lady of Perpetual Succor hospital in New York is not quite the Eden that Marion might have expected. He notices how rundown his new home is as soon as he arrives:
"We rounded a dry fountain, streaked with pigeon droppings. It resembled the magnificent one depicted in the brochure, but the bronze monsignor who was the centerpiece leaned precariously forward. The monsignor's features were worn down like the sphinx's. Also not in the brochure was the iron rod wedged between the rim of the fountain and the monsignor's waist to keep him from falling over." (4.38.64)
The description contrasts greatly with Missing: dry, precarious, worn down, falling over. Our Lady is in bad shape, and this is a disappointment to Marion because the brochure showed a much rosier picture.
This disappointment is shared by all of the hopeful doctors who come to Our Lady hoping for a bright future. Lou, the caretaker, calls them "Perpetual Suckers" (4.38.84), a play on the word "succor," as in the consolation that the Virgin Mary gives to faithful believers, and "sucker," meaning someone who has been conned.
Even if it's not all it's cracked up to be, Our Lady is, like Missing, a hospital that is sheltered from the violence outside. While in Ethiopia, Missing battened down the hatches against revolution, in New York, Our Lady shuts the gates against the gun violence that accompanies the drug trade in the surrounding neighborhood. Either way, the novel's characters find a shelter from the storm.