Love in the time of bookreading
The best birthday presents are those that last beyond the special day itself. No wonder, then, that books rank so highly on my "please, if you're going to spend money on me, spend it on this" list.
Case in point: Love in the Time of Cholera, my gift from Jess for the big Two-Five. It came with praise and a caveat ("I hated the book until this point, and then I loved it!"), as well as the weight of reputation. Better yet, it had good timing -- I received it right before a trip to the beach, so I was able to devour it in record time.
Devour seems strong, but is wholly accurate. LTOC was sensuous and sensual, putting me in a time and place I was never aware of. It introduced me to a dynamic protagonist in Fermina Daza, and a curious creepy/romantic dichotomy in Florentino Diza. But what kept my brain churning long after the last page were lingering quesitons and internal debates over the nature of love, and just what makes a relationship viable, even legit.
As I see it, this book could have had three alternate titles ...
1. Love in the Time of Social Media
The foundation for Fermina and Florentino's is wobbly, comprised of stolen glances, fevered fantasies, and manufactured importance, and fueled by passionate letters. Ah, the letters. Overwrought for Florentino, dispassionate for Fermina, they shoot back and forth between the young lovers with all the requisite symbols -- hair locks, camellias -- that replace actual conversation and relationship-building.
I couldn't help but note the parallel to today's hyper-digital communications, where worlds are lost and rebuilt on the strength of a text message. Taking others on and off pedestals is easier than ever, when you rely on profile pics and text speak to craft a person's identity for them. As in Fermina and Florentino's case, the lack of substance often comes to bear when reality strikes: when Fermina saw Florentino in the market, he came offline so to speak, and she realized the love they had constructed was built on sand.
Even Florentino's response has modern overtones. He takes the 19th century route equivalent to Facebook-stalking, conveniently showing up at events where Fermina will be and following the gossip surrounding her marriage. As Garcia Marquez frames it, this behavior (not to mention his not-so-little black book of amorous encounters) is an extension of his great capacity to love. The man can't help himself.
Here's where I disagree. In my mind, real love would mean Florentino allowing Fermina to live her life free of him. It would mean Florentino loving himself by finding the strength to go on and express his inner poetry in deeper and more productive ways. And it would mean Florentino getting to know Fermina, warts and all. But instead, he holds tight to the fantasy from his teenage years, unwilling to let go of his pedestal-ed ideal.
2. Love in the Time before Feminism
That said, Florentino isn't completely misguided in his adoration. Fermina is a strong character, a woman who takes her survival into her own hands and comes to grip with the real world and the reality of her position within it. Her name, meaning constant, is accurate in capturing her enduring determination and dignity. This gal's got class to spare, and a spitfire streak for extra pizzazz. I rooted for her every step of the way.
That is, until she found herself without Juvenal. Instead of relishing her freedom, Fermina was overwhelmed, and rekindled a relationship with Florentino to help banish loneliness. Here, my loyalties to her split.
On one hand, my post-feminist sensibilities wanted to her to strike one last defiant stance, and say YES to herself and NO to another man. The depiction of her marriage to Juvenal was nuanced and mature; there had been love, personal growth, and knowledge of life's daily battles and beauties. Once he was gone, however, I longed for her to discover who she could be on her own, and realize the full intelligence and character she showed as a young girl.
On the other hand, my human heart empathized with her Catch-22. Being widowed in her old age, in a time when age and gender were immediate disqualifiers to remaining happiness, meant the difference between a comfortable end to her years, and an uphill struggle against societal norms. Add to that her loneliness (determined women need love too!), and I can understand why she might have craved companionship, comfort, and adoration.
I even appreciate that once she got to know Florentino, she kindled a much more realistic and grounded affection for him based on his kind acts and attention. Ultimately though, Fermina disappointed me. If anyone had a chance to be appreciated as the complex, imperfect, indomitable woman she really was, Fermina Daza did. But she instead fell back on a man who had nursed an ghost of her true self for 60 years, without fully grasping the real depth and breadth of her character.
Which brings me to my third title --
3. Love in a Helluva Lot of Time
How realistic/attractive/possible/plausible is it for someone to pine after an ideal? We all do it. We build up others as we want them to be, not as they are, and then we're shocked and appalled when they don't live up to those expectations. While Florentino seemed delighted with Fermina, I still have to wonder if his actions stemmed from --
a) true love?
b) loneliness from a lack of connection?
c) or a sense of entitlement because dammit! he'd put in more than his fair share of time?
Same for Fermina. Was her change of heart due to --
a) have the luxury of time, space, and maturity to look past his oddness and see his poet's heart?
b) a selfish desire for the adoring attention?
c) or ... appreciation?
Maybe all of the above, which is entirely possible when one couple is given so much time to attempt time together. Ironic, isn't it -- a love Florentino (whose name means blooming) considered formed in a couple impetuous youthful years took a lifetime to reach Fermina's heart.
And it's only at the point in time, when all defenses and screens and games are stripped away, that they can find common ground, literally and figuratively: by being there for one another on the deck of a ship, holding hands in their old age.
That's why, for all its frustrating points and maddeningly overwrought behavior, LTOC was as true a depiction of the fine mess we call love as I've recently read. We chase ecstasy. We manufacture perfection. We build castles in the air. We screw up our communication. We sacrifice at the wrong times. We fear getting in too deep, or hurl ourselves in headfirst.
By the same token, we see the good in others. We want to be near them and with them. We sacrifice at the right time. We work toward a mutual future. We offer the best version of ourselves. We are patient. We are accepting. And we're willing to give it two, three, even 622 chances.
With that in mind, I applaud Garcia Marquez for capturing the best (love) and worst (cholera) in his original title -- and in doing so, the best and worst of human nature when it comes to the oldest form of interconnection. Couldn't have said it better myself.