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.