Every year I try to read at least one book that’s considered a literary masterpiece. Anything that ended up as an Oprah’s Book Club pick as well as a author that won a Nobel Prize should have been a magical choice. It’s true, there are lots of fascinating things going on in this book, but the story itself is actually kind of messed up.
There are some books that aren’t meant to be taken literally, and this is one of them. Woven through the pages are extensive symbolism and metaphor layered over metaphor which when peeled back and examined are quite insightful. But, I personally struggled to resonate with any of the characters or situations.
As told by an omniscient narrator in a nonlinear fashion, Love in the Time of Cholera follows the lives of Florentino Ariza and the woman he falls into unbreakable love with, Fermina Daza, and also to some extent, the man Fermina ends up marrying, Dr. Juvenal Urbino.
Throughout the course of the book we get to see Florentino’s obsession with Fermina and how it plots the course of his life. It determines where he lives, what jobs he takes, and how he interacts with other people. Because he feels fated to not love anyone else, he never enters into relationships with other women for love, but only to satisfy the pleasures of the flesh as he waits for Dr. Urbino to die.
Fifty years and 622 affairs later, the fated day comes when Dr. Urbino does indeed die. Florentino, now an old man, seeks his prize of Fermina’s hand and heart, only for her to brutally reject him. Undeterred, he writes her letter after letter while she’s grieving the loss of her husband. Finally, the two come together and take a journey by boat that they intend to stay on forever.
If you are looking for metaphor, look at the title. Love in the Time of Cholera. While yes, the actual disease of cholera is running amok in the background of the story, often leaving piles of bodies that our main characters witness, the book actually makes the argument that love itself is a disease that people are infected with. At one point it says that the symptoms of unrequited love are the same as cholera. Florentino is one sick, sad man.
I really do try hard to find things that are either interesting or entertaining in any book I read. Love in the Time of Cholera had plenty of lovely prose and description, layers of depth and symbolism, and a sense of otherworldliness. But, the story itself, being a 60 year failed love story, didn’t scratch any of my literary itches.
The style of writing makes the story itself hard to follow. The chapters and scenes jump around the timeline with no clear reason to the order in which things are told. As I was listening to the book, I might have missed textual clues that might have helped here. As it was, I was never confident what time period the characters were in, and as such, it made it impossible to gain any sense of rising tension or maintain a solid conflict to solve.
And … I continually struggled to remember who was who when it came to the characters of Florentino and Dr. Urbino. They both had a love for Fermina, but they had wildly different attitudes and tastes, so half the time I kept thinking one was the other and being really confused.
Some people love this book and rate it among their top 10 reads of all time. Many people like me became frustrated with the lack of a clear conflict and storyline. Should you want to try reading it, I recommend not to use the audiobook version if possible, and to also read a brief synopsis beforehand. Trust me, there are no surprises in the book to spoil, so you’ll be able to enjoy the writing more by having a better idea of the structure from the start.
As this is a literary book, and technically magical realism although I fail to really see it, it’s intended for adult readers. There are plenty of adult situations, complex story lines, and frank discussions of casual sex. For all you working toward your degrees in literature, there is plenty to unpack in there so from an academic standpoint, you could do worse.
But, if you are reading to simply enjoy a nice book, I’d go elsewhere.
I rate Love in the Time of Cholera 2/5 stars for failing to have a satisfying conclusion, lacking compelling conflict, and being hard to follow.
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