Many famous writers find a decline in their abilities as they get older. Gabriel García Márquez, on the other hand, only got stronger and more powerful, as demonstrated by composing one of the greatest “love” stories ever told (I’ll explain those quotes in a minute). When it was originally published in Spanish as El amor en los tiempos del cólera, the author was nearing his sixtieth birthday. Nearly two decades had passed since the author had ignited the world with his multi-generational epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it would seem that the man known as Gabo had so much more to give to the world. Spanning over half a century, Love in the Time of Cholera is the most brilliant novel on our conceptualization of that four-letter-word that I’ve ever encountered in literature.
When I started reading this book, I was truly expecting a love story. After all, we are told that this book is a love story, as it says so right there in the title. But the reality is that this is a novel about aging and how our perception of love changes over the course of time. When they were very young, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love, but a combination of tragic and unforeseen circumstances prevent them from getting married. Instead, Fermina Daza marries Juvenal Urbino, a wealthy and prominent physician. Meanwhile, the heartbroken man who continues to pine for his lost love loses himself in many sexual affairs (622 to be exact). When Fermina’s husband passes away decades later, Florentino decides to once again profess his undying love for her……at the funeral (talk about guts!). I promise I haven’t spoiled the book, as this information can be read on the back cover. The pleasure of learning about these characters lies in their journeys to get to this point. Márquez’s novel spans almost the entirety of Florentino and Fermina’s long and interesting lives, as they each grow and change with the passing of time. I respect the amount of patience the author put into building these characters, each with a core identity that remains preserved amid the many changes of heart, belief, and appearance. Telling such an extended narrative allows the author to explore a wide spectrum of human emotion, from the follies of youth to the wisdom that arrives with old age.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
This book contains some of the strongest prose ever to see print. Since this reading is a translated work, I have to wonder how of that affects my reading experience (I hate that I didn’t retain knowledge from all that high school Spanish). However, the genius of this author goes beyond the beauty of the words to the brilliantly constructed sentences to the perfect placement of paragraphs. Despite being a shorter novel at just over 300 pages, this is a slow and extremely dense read. Many passages feel as though they go on forever, which I thought was a important reflection on the patience Florentino exhibits throughout his life to wait on being reunited with his love. While the writing can often be beautiful, many times it can be so raw and ugly. Gabo can take his writing from the mundane to the sensual in the blink of an eye. This book is full of so much symbolism, particularly the use of nature. Honestly, I had never considered almonds as being overly romantic or sexy until reading this novel. I also thought it was interesting to set this during the cholera epidemic, as Florentino became so lovesick, his symptoms were mistakenly diagnosed as the disease.
Of course, the story of a complicated love triangle cannot be told in a linear fashion. The story begins near the end with the characters in their old age, but rather than jump to the beginning and move the story forward, García Márquez jumps backwards and forwards in time like he’s piloting a TARDIS on speed. In a less accomplished writer, this would come across as confusing (and probably total trash). I didn’t find myself getting confused at all, a testament to the storytelling prowess of García Márquez. Much of the writing feels like a dream, and as I was lulled into this metaphysical state, I realized that it didn’t matter when a certain event took place in relation to the others. For me, it just flowed. At least there weren’t five characters with the same name like in One Hundred Years of Solitude! In addition to the jumping around in time, the story moves between the three main characters quite effortlessly.
The question I continually asked myself while reading this book…..and am still asking myself……is whether or not this is truly a love story. To me, it felt more about an idea or obsession with the concept of love. In fact, Florentino and Fermina question if the love felt for the other was merely an illusion. While Florentino Ariza waits for six decades for the love of his life, he has sex with hundreds of women. Maybe this is an anti-love story? Maybe García Márquez wants us to question this concept of love? There is also the problem with the characters themselves, as they never come across as people I would actually like in real life. Some of Florentino’s affairs are quite “cringe.” In particular, his pursuit as an old man to a younger girl that harkens back to his initial chase of young Fermina. Let’s also talk about her for a moment, as many times I questioned why she is worth all this trouble. She changes her mind in the blink of an eye and suffers from being extremely hot-tempered. I can see why the narrator uses the term, “cataclysm” to describe their romance. In the end, we have a sex-addicted, immature, and dishonest man spending his entire life going after a self-centered and fickle woman. But the seductive writing powers of García Márquez serenade you to fully believing this unbelievable tale.
As with most stories from García Márquez, he has a lot to say about aging and death. The novel begins with a death, and mortality always feels close at hand as we follow these three characters from their teens all the way to old age. I loved that they repeatedly in their own ways encountered their own and each other’s aging at various points in their lives. This, dear readers, is real. The questions. The memories. The inevitability. Despite his shortcomings (and there are many), I did find myself admiring Florentino Ariza staying true to his heart and taking a stand, even though I may not necessarily agree.
Overall, I would recommend Love in the Time of Cholera for the writing. García Márquez is a master storyteller, and this novel is worth it to see the breadth of his powerful and poetic prose. Despite the questions it leaves at the end of the day about love, the honesty to which it deals with life and aging is thought-provoking. For this writer, I believe the core of this story is about man who struggles with the idea of love, and a woman who wanders through life and couldn’t care less about the actual people who gratify her in those moments. As with all great fiction, others’ eyes will see it differently. I’m curious to see how my perspective changes on a second reading when I’m older.
Love in the Time of Cholera is Book 6 of 12 for the 2022 TBR Challenge.