Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been called to the residence of his friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who had taken his own life the previous evening. From a letter that his friend had left him, Urbino learned that Saint-Amour had spent his final night with a female companion and that he was actually a fugitive who had indulged in cannibalism. Devastated by the knowledge, Urbino found his whole day unsettled. Late that afternoon, he fell to his death while trying to retrieve his parrot from his tree. Dr. Urbino’s funeral took place the next day. After the funeral, and after years of waiting, one of the guests, Florentino Ariza, told Dr. Urbino’s wife Fermina Daza that he loved her.
The relationship between Florentino and Fermina had begun more than fifty years earlier. Florentino, then working at a telegraph office, had delivered a message to Lorenzo Daza and fallen in love with Fermina, whom he saw in the sewing room. After this, Florentino daily sat on a bench in the park across from the Daza house, reading poetry but mostly waiting to see Fermina. After a brief correspondence between them, Fermina agreed to marry him and, after two years of secret courtship, they began to plan the wedding.
When Fermina’s father discovered the plan, he took his daughter to Valledupar, the home of his relatives, where she found a sympathetic friend in her cousin Hilldebranda Sanchez. With Hilldebranda’s help, Fermina continued to correspond with Florentino over the telegraph. Lorenzo realized that he could not control his daughter and gave her her freedom. In the midst of preparing for her wedding, however, Fermina in an abrupt about-face called off the engagement.
Eventually, she met Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a new doctor in the city who had just returned from his studies in Paris. He was committed to fighting cholera, and when Fermina was diagnosed as possibly having the disease, Urbino visited her house. Although he found her in perfect health, he returned repeatedly to the Daza household to see her. Initially, Fermina resisted the doctor’s suit, but her cousin Hilldebranda finally persuaded Fermina to marry Urbino.
When he learned that Fermina would marry Dr. Urbino, Florentino was devastated, especially because he realized that the two did not love each other. To escape this painful situation, Florentino went on a voyage down the Magdalena River. On the journey, he lost his virginity and realized that sexual passion could temporarily block out his pain over losing Fermina. When he returned to the city, he had an affair with the Widow Nazaret, and after that he went from one woman to another.
Florentino’s behavior at this point became enigmatical. On the one hand, he had decided to devote his life to winning back Fermina; he went to work for his Uncle Leo, who was president of the board of directors and manager of the River Company of the Caribbean, and advanced steadily. On the other hand, to cope with having lost Fermina, he became obsessed with other women.
At the same time, Fermina became disillusioned with her marriage. She saw that there was no passion between her and Urbino and that her husband fell far short of what a real man should be. Urbino was at heart a weak person whose social success depended largely on his family’s name. Moreover, Fermina discovered that her husband was having an affair with Barbara Lynch, wife of a Presbyterian minister. Urbino’s full confession of the affair infuriated her. She was further outraged when she learned that Juvenal had confessed his affair to the priest, whereas a real man as she saw it would have denied everything. She left her husband for two years to live with her cousin Hilldebranda, but when Juvenal finally came for her, she rejoiced, for then he was acting like a man.
After his Uncle Leo’s retirement from the navigation company, Florentino became president of the board of directors and general manager. The promotion certainly elevated his social status, but it also frightened Florentino because it meant that he, like his uncle, must grow old and die. He therefore began a final affair, this time with America Vicuna, a fourteen-year-old girl for whom he acted as guardian and who reminded him of Fermina.
This affair ended when Florentino heard the bells tolling the death of an important citizen in the city. He returned to the city, learned that Dr. Juvenal Urbino had died, and told Fermina that he still loved her and that she was the only woman he had ever loved. At first, she maintained the distance that the years had put between them. Only when she lost her will to live did she allow Florentino back into her life, telling him that she wanted to escape everything associated with her marriage. He thereupon arranged a boat trip, which allowed him to be alone with Fermina. On the journey, Fermina realized that she loved Florentino. Florentino for his part not only saw his lifelong quest fulfilled, he also overcame his fear of mortality as he realized that only through love could he transcend the time and eminence of death that remained the only obstacles in his romance with Fermina.