August 2018 to June 2022. It took me nearly four years to finish this book (after re-starting it from the beginning last summer), which is why I'm writing about it on its own. May and June have been bananas as I wrapped up my podcast for the year (100 episodes! 4 years! go me!), but now I can finally write a new book review. I was in Indiana for my cousin's high school graduation festivities when I finished this book, so instead of my pibble Julia, I used my cousin's goldendoodle Cooper as the book model this time.
I initially started Love in the Time of Cholera when I went to the Bay Area to visit my friend Irene in August 2018, remembering how she'd told me beforehand that some book club within her campus neighborhood at Stanford would be discussing it. (I ended up flying back home before I could attend the book club meeting.) I can't remember exactly when this novel came into my possession; presumably I bought a copy in 2015 when I worked at a bookstore and then let it sit for a while. But I do remember that I bought it because it's considered a literary "classic", and because I'd greatly enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude (Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's hit from 1967). So I was expecting to enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera (his hit from 1985) to at least a similar extent, and I gotta say... I don't understand the hype. I don't regret taking the time to finish it, and I'm glad to know how the novel ends for myself. But as the grand love story it's been made out to be, I wasn't really feeling it. More on that in a bit.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Picture it: a port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the late 1800s, just before the turn of the century. As teenagers, Fermina Daza (rich girl) and Florentino Ariza (poor boy who's the love child of a rich man) catch each other's eye when Florentino drops by her house to deliver a telegram to her father one day. They carry on a secret courtship via love letters, and even get engaged. Fermina's dad finds out and sends Fermina away to live with relatives, but her and Florentino's clandestine correspondence continues. Fermina eventually returns to the city, but when they finally get the chance to meet alone, she abruptly dismisses their relationship as silly and short-lived before erasing Florentino from her life. They're in their 20s at this point, and over the next 51 years they move on with their lives—well, Fermina moves on while Florentino pines for her—with Fermina marrying and starting a family with Dr. Juvenal Urbino, the most eligible young bachelor in the city. They spend an extended honeymoon in Europe, and until they return Florentino mistakenly assumes he'll never see Fermina again. He has sex with over 622 women as the decades roll on, using two dozen notebooks to keep record of them all. (He does this at first to unsuccessfully try to forget about Fermina, and then continues simply because he enjoys having sex. Gotta find something to do while waiting on your first love's husband to die, I suppose.)
No matter who he sleeps with or how infatuated he gets with this woman or that woman, Florentino remains convinced that Fermina is the only woman who truly has his heart. He also turns himself into someone who'd be worthy of the worldly high-society woman Fermina has become, gradually taking over his father's river navigation company and remodeling the house that he grew up in with his mother. Fermina and Florentino cross paths multiple times once they're in the same social echelon, but Florentino doesn't get the chance to re-declare his love for her until Urbino's funeral at Fermina's home, when they're in their 70s. Fermina responds by immediately kicking him out. Florentino then tries sending her impassioned love letters like he used to, but Fermina doesn't become receptive to him until he chills out and instead approaches her like an old friend, writing her his reflections on growing old. Florentino then starts making friendly visits to Fermina's house, even becoming acquainted with her adult children, and he later invites her on a two-week cruise on the Magdalena River via one of his company's ships. They finally have their first kiss and consummate their relationship during said cruise, and then Florentino has the ship cleared of all other passengers and cargo so they can enjoy the return trip all to themselves without any of Fermina's associates spotting her with him. However, the hitch is that he made the captain falsely report a case of cholera (which has become endemic) on the ship, which requires quarantine. Instead of allowing authorities to quarantine the ship just as they're about to reach their home city, Florentino and Fermina decide to turn right back around and sail up and down the Magdalena River together forever.
That's it. That's the love story. As referenced by the novel's title, cholera and civil war function as two co-occurring diseases in Colombia during this time, with love being a third kind of disease that consumes Florentino, letting nothing else hold as much importance in his life or attentions. If LITTOC were to focus on the events I've described above (plus the details about Urbino and Fermina's relationship that I haven't included), it would probably be half as long as it is. However, to be fair, I got the sense that García Márquez was also deeply invested in making readers grasp the times and feel immersed in 1880s-1930s Colombia. Which means there's an abundance of digressions, anecdotes, stories within a story within a story, side characters, and descriptive passages that might seem superfluous. I know I found myself getting annoyed at certain points, wondering, for example, Ugh! What the heck do sinophobia and Colombians refusing to believe that a Chinese man won the local poetry contest have to do with Fermina and Florentino getting back together??? But then it occurred to me that García Márquez's approach to storytelling (on paper) is similar to mine (especially verbally). I never intend to be long-winded, but I do want people to get all the details; I want to fill people in so thoroughly that I won't have to repeat myself later, and people will feel like they were there when the events occurred and like they personally know everyone involved. It's been years since I've read One Hundred Years of Solitude so I can't remember if I caught onto this stylistic aspect back then, but once I realized it while reading LITTOC, I had less room to be annoyed. And it was actually pretty cool to follow the transition from the 19th to the 20th century through peripheral mentions of new technologies being introduced to the city (telegrams, mule-drawn trolleys, hot air balloons, electric streetlights, "moving pictures", household telephones, automobiles, typewriters, skyscrapers, and so on).
I still had room to be annoyed by other things, though! Even as I acknowledge that I'm examining 1980s material that's set in the late 1800s and early 1900s with my 2022 eyes. This review was initially going to be much longer due to me detailing the parts of LITTOC that I took the most issue with. But then I backspaced most of it when I considered, Why am I going to spend extra time writing about a book that has underwhelmed me? So instead, I'll just briefly say that there are multiple incidents of rape being written about in an unserious manner (including one in which young Florentino is a victim). Furthermore, I increasingly found it difficult to be on adult Florentino's side knowing that he impregnates one of his maids and bribes her to say a different man did it, that he sexually grooms a 14-year-old relative of his when he's in his 70s, and that overall TWO women/girls die as a result of their involvement with him. He is occasionally remorseful, but that remorse passes because as sensitive or romantic a lover as he believes himself to be, Florentino is not a giver. His compassion has limits, and he's still primarily out for himself (and his desperate goal of reuniting with Fermina). But does García Márquez still reward Florentino's singular focus by giving this character what he desperately wants? Indeed, he does! What are readers to make of the supposed hero of this story, given all of this information? I'm supposed to care about this man who never got over his ex, knowing what I know? When Fermina doesn't even LOVE him, love him like that? To be clear, Florentino being lovesick and screwing around for five decades isn't the problem; it's mostly in good fun, with both him and his partners understanding it's strictly casual, and I guess it helps him to believe that staying sexually practiced will make him all the more prepared for Fermina. The problem is that the women and girls who are harmed by him don't seem to matter.
Love might be impervious to the passing of time but Fermina, Florentino, and Urbino's bodies certainly aren't. Frequent mention is made of how their bodies, their understandings of themselves, and their approaches to relationships inevitably change as they grow older. At the beginning, the novel even introduces us to them not as hot-blooded young lovers in a fierce love triangle, but as senior citizens surrounded by death. Maybe it's because I've had nearly four years to think about this book (off and on), and because I was nearing 26 when I started it compared to nearing 30 now, but I understand Love in the Time of Cholera more as a tale of aging, nostalgia, and learning when to hold out hope versus when to move on from things. As a love story, it's just kinda aight. Definitely not something I foresee myself returning to, but if you're a super fan of Gabriel García Márquez's work or really have a thing for Colombian literature, then read this book.
"Fermina Daza did not look at him, she did not interrupt her embroidering, but her decision opened the door a crack, wide enough for the entire world to pass through" (60)."In this way he learned that she did not want to marry him, but did feel joined to his life because of her immense gratitude to him for having corrupted her. She often said to him:'I adore you because you made me a whore.'[...] He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love" (151)."Without intending to, without even knowing it, he demonstrated with his life that his father had been right when he repeated until his dying day that there was no one with more common sense, no stonecutter more obstinate, no manager more lucid or dangerous, than a poet" (168)."It is better to arrive in time than to be invited" (254)."With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them... 'My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse'" (270).