There are certain novels on my TBR list that have been there so long, I hardly see them any more. Even when Teresa glowingly reviewed Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, last year, I said to myself, I have got to get around to that, and I never did. But when Teresa put it on my list in the book swap we exchanged at the beginning of January, I knew this novel’s time had come.
Teresa’s review gives a wonderful summary of what this novel is about, so I’ll let you read that, and just give a short review: in an unnamed South American city, the young, impoverished Florentino Ariza falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza. She returns his love, and they become secretly engaged, but when her father discovers their secret, he insists they break it off, and takes her away to make her forget. Eventually, she marries an upstanding young doctor, Juvenal Urbino, and Florentino is heartbroken. He swears never to forget Fermina Daza, and upon the doctor’s death, decades later, he presents himself to Fermina as her new suitor.
As Teresa says in her wonderful review, this is not — as it might have been — primarily the story of star-crossed lovers, or of some grand thwarted passion. Instead, it’s the story of the many different ways people find to love each other in this world. The part of the story that touched me the most deeply was the long, mostly-happy marriage between Fermina and Dr. Urbino. They don’t marry for love, but they build a relationship that is very much a love match: from being virtual strangers on their honeymoon, they become passionate lovers and partners, are torn apart by disagreements, forge a home and family, and finally (though this is in the first chapter), Urbino’s final words to Fermina are, “God alone knows how much I loved you.” I found so much that was wise and beautiful about marriage in these pages. For instance, Dr. Urbino says, in some frustration, “The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.” And yet:
Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness, and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and most grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.
There are many other forms of love to be found here, too. From the illicit love affair that Dr. Urbino discovers in the very first pages, to the requited-then-rejected love of Florentino Ariza, to the stable friendship of Leona Cassiani, to the love of children, to the many sexual liaisons Florentino engages in to help him forget Fermina, Garcia Marquez explores love, tenderness, compassion, and lust, along with the idea that suffering for love is a form of nobility. This suffering is not just on Florentino’s side, either: when Dr. Urbino dies, Fermina’s suffering is beyond words. This profound exploration of a theme is lush, meditative, sometimes funny, and deeply moving.
Just a few other things I loved about this book. The city, though it goes unnamed, is a real presence in the novel. The reader gets to know the different neighborhoods, from the poorer quarters where former slaves live and the air is rank and poisonous, to the decrepit glories of the declining aristocracy, to the shiny new suburbs. One part of this city that plays an important role is the river. As a metaphor for both connection (Florentino eventually runs a riverboat company) and barrier, it serves beautifully. Going back and forth, back and forth on the river that is itself changing with time: it reminded me of the ferry on the Mekong Delta in Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant. And, of course, time is one of the two central themes in this book. Never forget that it is Love in the Time of Cholera; it might as well be named Time in the Love of Cholera. The work and ravages and encroachments of time are everywhere: in the city, in the mind, in the aging bodies of the lovers. Love may be eternal, but lovers are not.
My one wish, reading this book, was that I could have read it in Spanish. I thought Edith Grossman’s translation was wonderful — the prose was beautiful, and I was completely engaged — but whenever I’m reading something I really love in a language I don’t know, I feel like someone wearing latex gloves. Yes, I can do my work; yes, I can even kind of feel what I’m doing. But there’s a barrier. I felt this way when I was reading the fabulous Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, and I felt that way with this book. Still, barring years of study, this was a good substitute. If this book has been on your TBR for years, read it now! Let me convince you the way Teresa did me. I fell in love, and you could, too.