Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1988 edition translated by Edith Grossman. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This book has great charm initially but follows a downward course which I found increasingly unpleasant.
Set in a colonial Caribbean coastal city in Columbia near the mouth of the Magdalena River, starting in the mid 19th century.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino, 81 y/o in c. 1925, is a respected medical school professor, responsible for many civic improvements including sanitary improvements to reduce the threat of cholera. He attends the suicide of his friend and chess partner Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, and is shocked to learn of his deceptions and criminal past and undisclosed mulatto mistress from his suicide letter. Urbinos' home was for a while the former palace of a Marquis de Casalduero-- Fermina's old home is in the district of La Manga, and they eventually move into a new villa in La Manga. They have married children, a firstborn son Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino Daza and daughter Ofelia Urbino [there may be another son as well]. He dislikes animals and gets rid of his wife's menagerie after a rabid dog rampage, leaving only a multilingual parrot which his headstrong (and generally unloving) 72 y/o wife Fermina Daza Urbino acquires. A luncheon in his honor is disrupted by a sudden storm. Firemen trash his home trying to catch the escaped parrot. When he climbs a ladder to catch it, he falls and dies. Fermina is soon confronted by her old rejected suitor (51 years previously), Florentino Ariza (76 y/o), who proclaims his still undying love for her.
Recounts the meeting and courtship of Fermina (beginning when she is c. 13-14 in the mid 19th C) by Florentino. They fall in love and after 2 years he sends a letter, following which they secretly become engaged. He is an incurable romantic, the bastard son of Don Pius V Loayza and Transito Ariza and works initially as a telegraph worker, passing his time at the hotel/brothel of his Lotario Thugut. Florentino serenades her on the violin and calls her his Crowned Goddess. A nun at her school discovers her love letter and she is expelled. Her unscrupulous mule-driver widower father, Lorenzo Daza, sends her aunt Escolástica (who abetted the lovers) away. He also meets with Florentino and threatens him unsuccessfully. He resolves to take her away and they go on an arduous mule journey over the mountains to Valledupar, visiting her mother's brother's family and her cousin Hildebranda Sánchez, and also the coastal town of Riohacha. She stays in constant contact however with Florentino through the telegraph system. He begins a fruitless search for sunken offshore treasure, assisted Euclides, a 12 y/o con man. After 2 years absence, Fermina returns by ship (she is now 17 y/o). She now runs the household and has matured. When she encounters Florentino in a market, she is instantly disenchanted and erases him from her life, breaking off the engagement.
Dr. Urbino returns from Paris, a 28 y/o eligible bachelor, surprised by the smallness and lack of sanitation in his homeland. His father Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino, also a doctor, was a cholera victim. He sees Fermina Daza as a patient and begins a courtship. She is hostile and haughty but her father forces her to be courteous. The nun attempts to mediate the courtship for Urbino. Hildebranda visits. Fermina finally consents somewhat reluctantly to the courtship. Florentino sadly leaves town for an upriver telegraphy station, encounters cholera, and resolves to return to always be in Fermina's town, losing his virginity aboard ship (her name may be Rosalba). He begins one of hundreds of discrete sexual encounters, first with the Widow Nazaret-- he begins a diary. Fermina goes on her honeymoon to Paris and overcomes her terror of sexuality.
Florentino gets a job with his uncle Don Leo XII Loayza's River Company of the Caribbean as a clerk, rising over 30 years in the hierarchy until eventually he inherits and leads it. His father had trysted in the offices there and he sets things up for his own similar uses. As a young man, he becomes a scribe of love letters. Winning back Fermina is the sole purpose of his life. He compulsively hunts women: Ausencia Santander (wife os a riverboat captain who steals all her furniture after discovering the affair), a mad murderess, etc. He meets and gives a job to the capable black Leona Cassiani, who refuses his sexual advances and becomes his close friend. He meets casually with Dr. Urbino. Florentino loses at a poetry competition. The buxom Sara Noriega consoles him and becomes his lover for a long time. He longs for Urbino's death. Fermina has vague thoughts about her former love, is bored and not in love, is dissatisfied with her oppressive mother-in-law (who eventually dies) and husband, but takes refuge in her son. Lorenzo Daza is forced to flee the country because of his corrupt acts. Florentino's affair with Olimpia Zuleta ends when her husband slashes her throat. Tránsito Ariza dies. Florentino contracts various STDs. After a Europe trip, Fermina has a third pregnancy, Ofelia. They move into the former Marquis' palace. Her life becomes tranquil and she and her husband have worked things out after 30 years of marriage.
In 1900, the Urbino's ascend in a balloon, viewing corpses that are victims of one of the many civil wars. Fermina rides on a velocipede. Florentino cherishes the occasional glimpses of her. She sniffs a new scent on her 58 y/o husband's clothes and eventually he confesses to a furtive sexual affair with the 28 y/o divorcee black Barbara Lynch, daughter of a minister. She resolves to leave her husband and goes without public notice for two years to live with cousin Hildebranda on her ranch beyond San Juan de Ciénaga at San Pedro Alejandrino. Florentino is getting bald and old. He thought Fermina had become ill but is amazed to encounter her at a movie. Leona refuses his advances. His teeth are extracted. He trysts at his office. He is made Leo XII's sole heir. He recalls various lovers, including Andrea Varón with whom he shared enemas. He has an affair with his 14 y/o relation América Vicuña, for whom he is guardian. He hears bells tolling Dr. Urbino's death, and hastens to tell the newly widowed Fermina of his undying love (recounted in Chap 1).
Fermina is insulted by his premature visit and sends him an insulting letter. She struggles with her feelings and anger over her husband's death, burning his belongings and many luxuries she acquired. She starts to think of Florentino. He seeks solace with old lover Prudencia Pitre. He tells América Vicuña he will be marrying. He writes consoling and philosophical letters to Fermina, who is pleased. After a year, he begins regular visits. He lunches with her Dr. Urbino Daza. Florentino breaks his leg and is tended by Leona and América, who note his new lack of desire for them. The news magazine Justice publishes an exposé disclosing a fabricated affair between her husband and Lucrecia del Rel del Obispo-- she breaks off her friendship with her. It also discloses her father's corrupt dealings. She loses her will to live. Ofelia opposes her interest in Florentino and is told to never return to her house. She decides to go on a cruise up the Magdalena R and her son is surprised, on seeing her off, to discover Florentino aboard. As they go up river, Florentino has changed from his funereal black clothes to white-- he gradually courts her and wins he love. They kiss. He learns that América has killed herself. They make love. At La Dorada, the final destination upriver, she doesn't want to be seen by passengers boarding that she knows. The captain, Diego Samaritano, colludes with Florentino and raises the cholera flag, putting the passengers off. They make tranquil love. On nearing their port of origin, they realize they will be discovered and she feels returning "will be like dying". Florentino asks the captain to turn the boat upriver again and sail back and forth "Forever".