Book Review: Love Is A Crazy Little Blue Thing, Silly, Deep, Endless and Found in The Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) is a love story that takes fifty years to unfold amid a background of war and pestilence.
Like love, Marquez and Cholera are anything simple. Marquez was a master storyteller who turns the notion of love on its head. Cholera might be one of the most perfect reads for uncertain times, like a pandemic.
Love, the pop songs say, is a crazy little blue thing, silly, deep, endless, found in hopeless places. Love is also meant to be eternal.
If pop songs are aimed at our younger selves — and I’d argue they mostly are — then they neglect to explain how vows of eternal love declared young play out over a lifetime. Especially, if you declare that love once in a lifetime.
Marquez plays with the idea of a romance, giving readers the idea that the promise of young love can indeed be forever, despite being unrequited. Just because you’re pining away the decades for love that might never be doesn’t mean you can’t live a life that is long, fulfilling, and authentic. In reality — or at least in fictional realities — pledging to love forever requires a level of commitment that few understand, especially not when we are young.
So here’s what the story is about: Florentino Ariza, a young poet who works in a telegraph office, falls forever in love with the beautiful Fermina Diaz. They have a secret, passionate, and chaste (it is after all, the 1880s) affair via letters and telegrams. Fermina’s father discovers the affair and forces his daughter to stop seeing Florentino immediately. Given the time and the place (an unnamed city on the Caribbean side of Columbia), Fermina’s dad sends her away on a “journey of forgetting.” When she returns, she realizes her relationship with Florentino was really nothing more than a dream.
Fermina marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a national hero dedicated to progress, modernization, and the eradication of cholera. Fermina serves as wife, becomes a mother, and manages her household. For Florentino, the marriage is a setback, but dedicated to his love for Fermina, he waits 50 plus years to declare his love again. He does so after Dr. Urbino dies in Marquezian fashion, chasing a pet parrot up a mango tree. Also, in Marquezian fashion, most of this takes place in the first chapter, and we get to spend the rest of the book in a 50-year flashback.
We witness this decades-long love story play out against the cholera epidemic. We watch death proliferate as a pandemic and battles and wars on a massive scale. And we see how love springs eternal — as both a spiritual and physical act.
Florentino embodies both. While carrying the torch for Fermina, he seduces and is seduced by women young and old, perhaps as a painkiller against the wait, because as the other song says, “is the hardest part.” Florentino keeps (pathetically) a list of the 622 women he sleeps during the fifty years, seven months, and eleven days he waits for Fermina. When he gets the chance to declare his love for Fermina, he claims he is a virgin which she doesn’t believe for a second. Nor does she immediately fall for his I’ve-loved-you-and-have-been waiting-my-whole-life-for-you schtick.
One of the joys of reading Marquez is the women of his stories and Fermina is among the best of his characters. Marquez says it was his grandmother and her stories that inspired him to write. In Cholera, the women are realistic and strong. They are grounded and grounding. They tolerate the weaknesses and spoils of the men in their lives. Through Fermina we experience the ups and downs of love as passion, which she holds as irrational anger toward Florentino and physical, which her husband Urbino approaches clinically (the way he helps the town eradicate cholera).
Do they get together? You’ll have to read to find out.
The lesson we can take from the beautiful and heartbreaking Cholera is that despite war and pestilence, life and love always find a way.