Gabriel García Márquez,
Love in the Time of Cholera
(Penguin, 1988, translated by Edith Grossman)

My introduction to the work of Gabriel García Márquez was his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, an exquisite piece of magical realism that entranced and empowered. It drove me to tears with emotional simplicity and challenged me with political satire of another era. I searched for more and found tender, surreal collections of short stories, including my favorites, "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World."

Love in theTime of Cholera offers the same dreamlike quality of these other works, but for the first three quarters of the book, I felt trapped in a beautiful yet never-ending slumber. The protagonist of the novel, Florentino Ariza, barely enters the first fifty pages. Instead, we learn to know and appreciate the compassionate, devoted Dr. Juvenal Urbino, Florentino's victorious rival for the affections of Fermina Daza for more than half a decade.

The prose is extraordinarily fluid and luxurious. Upon realizing his proclamation of his love for Fermina Daza was ill-timed on "her first night as a widow," Florentino reunites with one of his hundreds of mistresses. In the morning he "walked out into a different city, one that was perfumed by the last dahlias of June, and onto a street out of his youth, where the shadowy widows from five o'clock Mass were filing by. ... He could no longer hold back, not his midnight tears, as he thought, but other tears: the ones he had been swallowing for fifty-one years, nine months and four days."

The first three quarters of the novel recounts the youthful exuberance shared by Florentino and Fermina, through several years of love letters and a separation imposed by her father. The reader feels his pain when they are finally reunited and "instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment." The narration turns to five decades of her passionate marriage to Dr. Urbino and extensively details Florentino's attempts to forget her in the process of filling 25 notebooks labeled "Women" with 622 entries significant enough to deserve a mention.

All of this proceeds in lush language at a sloth's pace under the specter of potential cholera epidemics. Corpses float along the river and litter fearful villages with contamination. Death is imminent even as the three main characters advance beyond their 70s, an age at which Urbino and Fermina Daza's children find "whispers and fleeting lover's quarrels" repulsive.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel of patience, devotion, promiscuity, love and death -- not necessarily in that order. The flowery and melodious images of dreaming yield to a surprisingly rewarding ending. But this is not a book for those who cherish an actively developed plot. It is meant to be savored.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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