Content warning: This article discusses instances of sexual assault depicted in the novel.
I’m back! It’s me again, with Unshelved, a column in which I attempt to read and review as many of the books that have lingered on my bookshelf as possible. First up is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.
Good lord, this book has taken me a long time to finish. I started it in the middle of the fall semester, and I was a little less than halfway through it by the time spring semester ended.
This book is dense. Not exactly in a bad way, but each sentence is so packed with information it can be hard to follow at times. The chapters, if you could call them that, are few and far between, so there aren’t many logical resting places. If you put this book down for any extended period of time, picking it back up again is difficult because you have to reorient yourself in the middle of a page, in the middle of the world that Márquez has woven.
In the first 50 pages, Márquez thoroughly develops the character of Dr. Juvenal Urbino: his personality, his mannerisms, his relationship with his wife, Fermina Daza, and then, abruptly, his death. Yes, 50 pages into the book, the author kills who I thought was going to be the main character.
To be fair, maybe I should have seen it coming. After all, this book is supposed to be a love story, and there didn’t seem to be anything overtly romantic about an elderly, married doctor. I didn’t know anything about this book when I started reading it, only that it’s about love, and that it’s set “in the time of cholera,” as the title states.
Anyway, after that unexpected hiccup, I realized that the main characters are the newly widowed Fermina Daza, and Florentino Ariza, her childhood love. The story then jumps backward 50 years, to when Fermina and Florentino are young teenagers, and tracks their lives and their love story from there.
Love in the Time of Cholera was originally published in Spanish in 1985 and then translated to English in 1988. The story is set in an unspecified city on the Caribbean coast at the turn of the 20th century, during a period of rampant cholera outbreaks. The threat of this devastating disease is the backdrop for the novel, as it causes migration and leaves death in its wake.
When we first meet Fermina, her intelligence and haughtiness stand out, and she retains much of her stately bearing through the decades spanned by this book. She attends a prestigious Catholic school with her father’s newly acquired wealth earned, as we later learn, through illicit business dealings. Florentino comes from humble beginnings but turns into a successful businessman by rising through the ranks of a riverboat company.
Florentino becomes obsessed with Fermina, sitting in the same spot in the park every day, hoping to catch a glimpse of her on her way home from school. He begins a tentative courtship but then starts writing her passionate letters in the hopes of receiving a response, which she eventually provides. They begin an ardent correspondence, which culminates in a marriage proposal. However, when, after a long absence, Fermina is confronted with Florentino face to face, she realizes that her love is all smoke and mirrors, all an illusion sustained only by romantic words and heroic fantasies. It seems to burn brightly for a time but fades just as quickly. She breaks things off and then later marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a wealthy, prominent doctor.
Florentino is left heartbroken but still determined to marry her. He decides to wait—for decades, for however long it takes—till her husband is dead and she is free again. He engages in *622* affairs with different women in an effort to “cure himself of her.” Meanwhile, Fermina goes about her married life, having children and navigating relationship difficulties such as her husband’s infidelity. Despite their sunny, serene public presence, Fermina takes to hiding in her bathroom and smoking illicit cigars to briefly escape the stress of married life. She sees Florentino in passing over the years but never thinks much about him, besides feeling a little bit of gnawing guilt for hurting him.
Finally, 50 years later Florentino decides to attend her husband’s funeral and re-declare his love there: “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
And in response, she’s, you know, understandably shocked and angry. But then he starts writing her letters every day for a year, at which point she begins to soften to him. It’s a gradual courtship, as Florentino is wary of putting a toe out of line and aggravating her short temper. They start to have weekly visits, and love slowly blooms anew between them. He then takes her on an eleven-day cruise, in which they finally declare their love for each other and have kind of awkward old-people sex. In the end, rather than return home as planned, they decide instead to remain at sea, traveling for the rest of their days.
So, overall I guess I can see why this book is so famous. The writing is really good, and Márquez jumps seamlessly between character points of view with finesse. And some people find undying love to be, I don’t know, romantic or something. It’s a detailed, scientific yet artful examination of both sexual and emotional relationships.
On the other hand, I did feel that the plot was often bogged down with irrelevant, atmospheric details. I’m all for world building and vivid side characters, but at times it felt like he was writing just to read his own writing. That reminds me of Florentino, who also wrote long love letters with an inexhaustible fervor as an outlet for his romantic anguish. It makes sense that the middle of the book is so detailed as it does track a 50-year timespan, but overall, it was tough to get through.
What’s wild to me is that Florentino harbors this passion for Fermina for decades, all with the hope that once her husband dies, he can declare his love again and “have her,” as though the only thing standing in the way is her husband? And not the love she does or does not have for him? He just assumes she’ll be there waiting for him.
But that’s only the start of this book’s problems. Love in the Time of Cholera romanticizes sexual assault and perpetuates the unhealthy message that all unwilling women need is a bit of convincing.
Florentino uses women as a means to an end. However he may or may not feel about them, he sleeps with 622 women as temporary respites from the pain of his love for Fermina, making these relationships essentially transactional. Although, I was happy to see that not all the women just fell at their feet in love with him. Some of them used sex with him in a similar way, to fulfill a desire or a need. Márquez also romanticizes Florentino’s persistence and determination to remain emotionally, if not sexually, faithful to Fermina. This teaches men that if they just write another letter, if they just try a little harder, the prize they’re after will be theirs, disregarding the fact that that prize is another human being with emotions and desires of their own.
But even worse than all that, Márquez casually throws in instances of sexual assault and statutory rape committed by a character we’re somehow still supposed to find likable? To root for in his pursuit of Fermina? There is no specific reason these details are necessary to the plot, which makes their inclusion all the more unsettling.
Leona Cassini, one of the book’s most admirable and well-developed female characters, is assaulted by a random man on the street. This is revealed when Florentino Ariza makes a move on her and she replies by saying he’s not the man she’s looking for. Because her rapist was so skilled at sex, Leona Cassini apparently decides to go looking for him.
“Lying there on the rocks, her body covered with cuts and bruises, she had wanted that man to stay forever so that she could die of love in his arms,” Márquez writes. She then asks anyone who would listen, “If you ever hear of a big, strong fellow who raped a poor black girl from the street on Drowned Men’s Jetty, one October fifteenth at about half-past eleven at night, tell him where he can find me.”
Márquez acknowledges that she was raped, but romanticizes rape in a harmful, twisted way by conveying the message that if your rapist is good in bed then you’ll fall in love with him? And that the rape is somehow excusable?
At the end of the book, it’s randomly revealed that Florentino sexually assaulted a maid. When she got pregnant, he bribed her with a furnished house so she would disappear and lie about the identity of the child’s father.
But one of the worst things Florentino does is begin an “affair”—if it can even be called that—with a fourteen-year-old girl who is entrusted to his guardianship. He’s over 60 years old at this time. For any adult to look at a fourteen-year-old in a sexual way is deplorable, but for someone old enough to be her grandfather, who is meant to be her guardian, and, to top it off, who is also a “recognized blood relative,” it is absolutely horrific. What’s worse is that Márquez portrays the relationship as consensual. When we do hear from the girl’s perspective, she’s apparently in love with him, so much so that she eventually commits suicide when he tells her he’s going to pursue Fermina. This part was completely unnecessary to the plot and made it difficult to keep reading or to find any romance in Florentino and Fermina’s eventual reunion because it was tainted with the knowledge that Florentino, the supposed hero, is a rapist.
Fermina does have her moments of transgressive feminist power. At one point, she asserts her independence and says, “If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.” Toward the middle of the book, fed up with her husband’s particularity and his short temper, she relinquishes her household duties to him for a day. He attempts to keep everything running smoothly and exactly to her specifications, while she fulfills his role, criticizing every little thing he gets wrong. Overall, Fermina, despite her fickle tendencies and materialism, is a more likable and personally relatable character.
On the other hand, Florentino is a pretty deplorable character, unredeemed despite his love for Fermina. As more and more details of his exploits are revealed, reading this book began to make my skin crawl. He’s every man who heard “try harder” when I said, “I’m not interested.” He’s every man who didn’t stop, who thought he could just persuade me. He’s every man who lied to get what he wanted. He’s every man with barely any regard for women’s humanity. While he supposedly pines for Fermina, he really just believes he’s entitled to her love, the ultimate prize for his years of emotional “fidelity.” Florentino Ariza’s decades-long love isn’t romantic; it’s creepy.
Image Credits: Sienna Brancato