I will not use any spoiler tags, so anyone who has not completed reading this book and does not want unread information disclosed should probably stop reading this now.
I believe that Fantasyfan raises some valid points about the novel not only being about love, but sex. However I happened to think that the title is appropriate as it describes how the novel explores various forms that love could take in the time and place that it was set.
The major love story of the book is of course the love Florentino Ariza carries for Fermina (Daza) Urbino from when he first encounters her when she is just a teenager, though her marriage to Juvenal Urbino, until it can finally be realized in old age when she is a widow. This love of Florentino's would seem strange today because it is a throw back to the Age of Chivalry and Romance. To quote from one of my favorite books:
“Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. It was entirely unknown to antiquity. Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was to great, that a whole lifetime might be properly spent in paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf—this would have seemed to the Romans or the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature—from Chrétien de Troyes to Shelly—most of which I find unreadable; and even up to1945 we still retained a number of chivalrous gestures; we raised our hats to ladies, and let them pass first through doors, and, in America, pushed in their seats at table. And we still subscribed to the fantasy that they were chaste and pure beings, in whose presence we couldn't tell certain stories or pronounce certain words.” Civilisation by Kenneth Clark
Yet in the time and culture that this novel is set, it would not seem so strange at all, at least during youthful courtship. When poets could make a living in the “Arcade of Scribes” penning flowery romance letters for young suitors. It is telling that during all the years that Florentino engaged in hundreds of sexual liaisons, whether for one night or extended affairs, he never gave thought to attempting to do so with Fermina. Other married women yes, but not her.
The love between Fermina and Juvenal Urbino is another type of love, one more modern and practical. She for a time is caught up with the romantic fantasy love with Florentino, but then with a flash of maturity and wisdom discards that for a lasting marriage with Urbino. Fantasyfan mentions the quote from Urbino: "Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness but stability." I would say equally applicable is the truth that it may be more important that husband and wife be good friends than that they be passionately in love, at least for a marriage to endure from the ages of early 20s to the 70s. After Juvenal has died, and the letters Fermina receives from Florentino help Fermina deal with her loss, she still wishes that Juvenal could be with her to discuss those letters with him.
There is also the aspect of various forms of purely sexual passion explored as Fantasyfan notes. Florentino may hold chaste romantic love for Fermina, but he himself is by no means chaste sexually, more of a sexually obsessed predator. Here it seems to me that the novel is immersed in a Latin male dominated culture of its time. It is the responsibility of women to protect their virginity and males should be free to attempt any means to over come this. And if a woman succumbs to sexual advances it is because that was, even if in secret or without her knowing at the time, what she actually desired. The novel is scattered with married women who, once free from their husbands, become sexually promiscuous, if not sexual predators. In some instances I found this disturbing.
When as a young girl Leona Cassiani is raped, her response to this is to wish the man who raped her to return so that she could once more have sex with him. When Florentino starts a sexual relationship with América Vicuña, violating the trust put in him as her guardian and engages in what is essentially pedophilia, she becomes sexually vociferous and kills herself when the relationship ends.
I really love the quality of writing in this book, and thought there was another overall theme. That of the effects of aging and decay. The town of Cartagena and the Magdalena River are already at the beginning of the novel in decline from former days of glory and this only continues throughout the novel. When Juvenal Urbino returns from his education in Paris he is struck by this, but yet stays and learns to love his place there. The principal characters also age and decay over the course of the novel, yet seem to find a way to find a way to keep frozen in time. The way the novel ends with the thought that Florentino and Fermina will be forever able to remain together boating up and down the Magdalena River.
Good book and thanks to Sun Surfer for putting it forward.