You may have noticed that I’ve slowed down my breakneck pace on this book list. That’s because this selection took a particularly long time to finish.
I dove into the fray of slightly more serious literature with my most recent choice on the summer reading list: Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). This novel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was touted as more accessible than his One Hundred Years of Solitude, which dabbles in the domain of magical realism. In my summer reading list aims, I had decided I wanted to read more 1) fiction, written by 2) male, and 3) nonwhite authors. So this one seemed like a good choice.
In reading the reviews on amazon.com, I was struck by the resounding enthusiasm for this book; the vast majority of commenters were deeply moved by this love story. Let me begin my own review by saying that I was moved as well–almost moved to the point of not finishing the book. That’s how much I disliked this novel. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my religious adherence to my summer project, I probably wouldn’t have finished.
This novel, after the first chapter*, frustrated me, annoyed me, set my teeth on edge, and made me laugh out loud at some of its more ridiculous excesses. It is, in a nutshell, the most overwrought, affected, maudlin, soppy, and excessively romantic book I have read in years, maybe ever.
The story is fairly simple: weird, maudlin young man doesn’t meet beautiful, strong young woman but falls in love with her anyway (from a distance). Girl and weird young man engage in long courtship via letters, dried flowers, and coy glances. Young woman eventually realizes how weird and soppy young man is, breaking away in one quick blow. Girl marries promising young doctor and is happy. Maudlin, creepy, overwrought young man proceeds to have 600+ affairs, but never marrying and continuing to harbor a creepy obsession for girl. Fifty years later, her husband dies. Creepy old man attends the wake to tell woman that he still loves her. She is justifiably angry and ejects him from the house. After a couple of years’ worth of love letters, while he wears her down and they have their first conversation, and fall in love (albeit a sort of tired, end-of-the-road love). The end.
Look, I’ve got no problem with romance. I’ve seen Amelie about a hundred times and I’m always a little teary-eyed when she gets together with her quirky man at the end. And I even saw The English Patient and enjoyed the star-crossed lovers’ ill-fated adventures. Because those two stories have at least a few shreds of HUMOR and HUMANITY (yes, Amelie had lots of humor and humanity). Love in the Time of Cholera, however, couldn’t find a sense of humor with both hands. The characters are just caricatures.
To be fair (and balanced), some of the book’s beauty lies in the descriptions of its setting, theorized to be Cartagena, Colombia (I say theorized because it’s not explicitly identified in the book, but others have deduced this). Marquez’s descriptions of the city and the surrounding countryside are very evocative; you can almost feel the heat and humidity. I also enjoyed the description of the familiar affection, as well as the darker side of dependence, in the long-term relationship between the doctor and his wife. Some of the scenes of growing old together were touching, as were the scenes of her grief after his death.
Otherwise, I found myself alternately irritated and repelled by the character of Ariza (creepy young/old man). As a young man in the days of his arms-length courtship with his beloved, and later in his love-from-afar days, he gave me what is called in literary circles the “heebie-jeebies.” He follows her around, writing her 60-page love letters. He composes a waltz for her on his violin, then plays it, WHILE WEEPING, in a GRAVEYARD! In order to experience his beloved more closely, he obtains a bottle of perfume that might be something she might have bought, and in an effort to be closer to her, he ends up DRINKING it. He doesn’t sleep, he can’t eat, all for the love that tortures his soul. Blah blah blah.
Am I totally calloused? Incapable of appreciating a love story? I think not, pointing to my examples above. I think that my negative reaction to this love story is that it seems poisonous and unhealthy. I realize that this story is set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when times were different. But even taking that into account, I didn’t enjoy the specter of this strange, creepy, maudlin man hanging over the whole story. One example: his last affair, when he was more than sixty years old, was with a fourteen-year-old girl.
One of the reviews I read said that that Ariza was like Humbert Humbert, the main character in Lolita, in the sense that he would charm the reader into feeling sympathy for him in spite of his general creepiness. Well, I certainly wasn’t charmed by Ariza (or Humbert for that matter, though the writing in Lolita was lovely). I found myself hoping against hope that the woman, who did appeal to me as a character, would retain her strength of character and recognize him for what he was: possibly dangerous. But since it’s a love story, she didn’t, although as I mentioned above, their pursuit of affection in their old age is charming in its way.
In short, I wouldn’t recommend this book, unless you’re already a huge fan of the author or have a weakness for Latin American literature or overwrought romance stories. According to my friend with the master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature, two more easily accessible and enjoyable books by Marquez are The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
*Interestingly, the first chapter has almost no bearing on the rest of the novel.