Love in the Time of Cholera


In an unnamed South American city at the turn of the century, a young telegraph operator named Florentino Ariza falls in love the with beautiful Fermina Daza. Encouraged by her romantic aunt, Fermina exchanges letters with Florentino, and the two eventually agree to marry. When Fermina’s father learns of the secret arrangement, he forbids the match and takes Fermina away. Eventually, she agrees to marry the wealthy Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The heart-broken Florentino promises himself that he will wait for Urbino’s death, never giving his heart to anyone else. More than fifty years later, Dr. Urbino dies, and Florentino appears at Fermina’s door, and she demands that he leave and never return.

Lest you think that I’ve just spoiled the plot of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterful Love in the Time of Cholera, rest assured that the deathbed confrontation occurs at the end of the first chapter. From the beginning, we know the general outline of almost the entire story; the rest of the book fills in the gaps in Fermina and Florentino’s youthful romance, Fermina’s long marriage, and Florentino’s life of waiting for the woman he has given his heart to.

Márquez has created a fascinating love story, not because of some great central romance, but because he uses his three main characters to explore the many ways that we love. This is not merely a book about getting swept away in the passion of first love, although that is a piece of it. It’s also a book about how love can grow and subside and grow again over a long marriage. And it’s about carnal love, which Florentino uses to pass the time as he waits for Fermina. The many lovers in this book exist in a world that only the two involved can truly understand, and even they don’t fully get it sometimes. Like the victims of the cholera epidemic that lives largely in the shadows of the book, lovers seem to need to be quarantined from the world, where societal expectations, romantic rivals, and pernicious rumors work against them.

My own favorite storyline here was the one that focused on Fermina’s marriage. The two did not marry for love, but in the end, they were in love, sometimes even a passionate, romantic one. Here, we get a glimpse of Juvenal’s thoughts on their first night together:

He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.

The love that they invent comes from twining their lives together, having children together, getting used to each other. It is perhaps the love that Catherine and Edgar of Wuthering Heights might have had if she had lived and Heathcliff had stood aside. This was the story that moved me the most.

Florentino, in contrast, relies on carnal love. Even as he waits for Fermina, he gives his body to nearly every women he meets. He beds widows, married women, women of various races, and women who are too young for him. Many of these affairs end in disaster, but some just end because the two have gotten what they need from each other. He does say that he loves these women, but it is not the same as his love for Fermina; in fact, he rejects the opportunity to pursue a love affair with the one woman who might truly win his heart because he can’t give up hope for Fermina. Personally, for most of the book, I did not like Florentino much as a person, but Márquez makes great use of his many affairs to show different faces of love, and I liked that.

One of the best things about this book is Márquez’s narrative voice, wonderfully translated by Edith Grossman. A story like this one could easily degenerate into soppy sentimentality, but Márquez tells the tale with such a wonderfully wry, detached tone that there’s no sense of melodramatic excess. I laughed out loud at comments like this one, on Juvenal Urbino’s bringing the opera to their city:

Without a doubt it was Dr. Urbino’s most contagious initiative, for opera fever infected the most surprising elements in the city and gave rise to a whole generation of Isoldes and Otellos and Aïdas and Siegfrieds. But it never reached the extremes Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the intermissions.

Love in the Time of Cholera was recently made into a film, which I have not seen. I’m skeptical about how well this story could work as a film because the narrative voice is so central to how well the novel works. Plus, the previews made it look like a melodramatic story of star-crossed lovers, rather than an exploration of the many different faces of love. If you’ve seen the film, I’d love to know what you thought.

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16 Responses to Love in the Time of Cholera

  1. For some reason this book intimidates me. I don’t know why as I’m sure I’ll love it.

    I bought News of a Kidnapping the other day, as some one recommended it was a better book to start with. I’m sure I’ll read Love in the Time of Cholera one day, and your review has pushed it closer to the top of the list. Thank you.

  2. christina says:

    I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it. I found it tedious and frustrating. In fact, I think it took all of January of last year to get through.

    Haven’t seen the movie yet, although I’m drawn to period pieces.

    Have you read the Painted Veil? It’s been on my list for a while.

  3. Steph says:

    I read One Hundred Years of Solitude last year and LOVED it. It was my first Marquez, but I vowed to read more of him. So, I procured myself a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, but I just haven’t made the time for it yet. I was utterly swept away by One Hundred Years and worried I might not ever connect with another of Marquez’s books as well as I did that one, but your review has made me hopeful that when I do approach this one, there’s a good chance I’ll like it just as much! I find Marquez’s writing immensely rewarding, but also very demanding and the type of prose that requires lots of stopping to ponder his meaning, so I need to be in the right mindset for it. Glad you loved this one, and I’m really looking forward to it myself!

    Also, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve heard it was quite horrible!

  4. Nymeth says:

    I completely agree with pretty much everything you said. I love this book to bits. And I’m skeptical about the movie too. I just don’t see this story working as anything other than a book.

  5. Teresa says:

    Jackie: I know what you mean about intimidation. There’s a line in High Fidelity where Rob says he’s read Love in the Time of Cholera, and he’s *thinks* he understood it. This led me to think that this is one of those books where you don’t always know what’s going on, and that’s not the case at all. As Steph says, Marquez’s style does require you to take your time and focus, but the story itself is not difficult.

    christina: Oh no! That just goes to show that one woman’s lush and meditative is another woman’s tedious and frustrating :-) I haven’t read the Painted Veil, but I saw and liked the movie, and I love Maugham, so I probably will read it eventually. I hadn’t thought of the parallels but now that you mention it, they’re pretty obvious.

    Steph: I’ve intended to read 100 Years of Solitude for years and years now. I agree with you about Marquez’s prose, but I often find that once I get swept up into this kind of writing, I don’t have to stop and think about it so much. But that only works if the author can really grab me, and Marquez did with this book.

    Nymeth: You know, the movie trailer nearly put me off wanting to read the book, but I’ve wondered if the trailer just focused on the more predictable melodrama while the movie itself gets the tone right. You may be right though that it just wouldn’t work well as a movie.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I read this many, many years ago and don’t even remember it from your plot description. I’m definitely going to have to re-read it! I think I would probably not see the movie. There are certain authors that I don’t think will ever translate well into film.

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen: Oh, I hate that–when I know I’ve read something but barely remember it. I do think this would stand up to rereading, even if you *do* remember it.

  7. Annabel says:

    I read this last year – it was my first Marquez. I found it slightly hard going, but more so because I didn’t like Fiorentino & Fermina. I would like to read 100 yrs of solitude sometime though.

  8. Teresa says:

    Annabel: I agree that Florentino and Fermina aren’t particularly likable, but that wasn’t a problem for me because I got so caught up in the writing. And F&F eventually grew on me.

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting. I’ve been aware of this book (have read One Hundred Years), but didn’t know much about it. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and your review makes me more likely to consider reading it myself.

  10. claire says:

    This is probably my most favourite book in all the world. Probably because it was my first Garcia Marquez, and I find that my first forays into an author is often the one I cling to sentiment-wise. I also loved 100 Years and most anything I read by him because of the way he writes, which is, as you say, wonderful.

    Your review is spot on, especially when you said the three main characters explore the many ways in which we love.

    I’ve seen the movie although I didn’t want to. Only my husband did and so I cuddled up to him and went along. It’s not very horrible as I imagined but of course it will never live up to the book, because the film will only have the story, but the book will have the stunning voice of the author.

  11. litlove says:

    Oh boy, another author I really, really must read. I have never even opened a page of Marquez, but I really do want to. This is a wonderful review, Teresa, and makes me very keen indeed to find a copy of this right away!

  12. Teresa says:

    Dorothy: I had known about this book (and 100 Years of Solitude) for years without knowing what it was about. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    claire: Thanks for sharing about the movie. I’m glad to hear it was better than it looked from the preview, but it just won’t be the same without Marquez’s wonderful writing.

    Litlove: Marquez is one of those authors I’d been wanting to try for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I hope you get a chance to read this soon.

  13. serena says:

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve seen the movie…which was a bit boring.

    I would like to give the book a try.

    I love the cover of this one you posted.

    • Teresa says:

      Serena: I like that cover, too. The funny thing is that it’s the movie tie-in cover, and I usually don’t like those. The other covers I’ve seen aren’t nearly as striking.

  14. Pingback: South American Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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