The second part of Love in the Time of Cholera describes how Florentino Ariza and Fermina met and loved each other for four years. Florentino is the bastard son of a successful shipowner, Don Pius V Loayza, who died when Florentino was only ten, leaving him without support. Florentino thus had to leave school, and he worked in the Postal Agency, where he met Lotario Thugut. Lotario taught him how to play the violin, how to work a telegraph machine, and about prostitutes.
Florentino is the most desired by the girls of his circle, but he does not care deeply for any of them until he delivers a telegram to Lorenzo Daza's house, where he sees Fermina Daza for the first time. Florentino immediately falls in love with her, age thirteen and cared for by her aunt, Escolastica Daza, because her mother died long ago. Florentino learns that they are rich although Lorenzo Daza's profession is unknown. Florentino soon learns that Lorenzo Daza has a strict regime for his daughter, which makes it impossible for Florentino to see her alone. He satisfies himself with following her and watching her as much as he can. Florentino finally cannot bear to keep his secret any longer, so he tells his mother.
Escolastica already realized that Florentino was in love with her niece--and has told Fermina. Although Fermina at first felt no curiosity about love, she gradually finds herself fascinated by the sick-looking boy always following her, and her aunt encourages her interest, teaching her the sign language to use in forbidden love. She waits impatiently for a letter from him, but it takes him almost a year to build the courage to give her one.
Meanwhile he follows her at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and after coming close enough to touch her, he falls sick anew with delirious love. One day her sees that during her lessons, her aunt has gone inside intentionally to give him an opportunity to approach Fermina. He asks for the opportunity to give her a letter, and she allows it.
As Florentino waits for Fermina's response to his letter, he falls physically ill with love--to the point that his mother fears he has cholera. His mother encourages him to enjoy his suffering, which is just what he wants, but his work becomes so atrocious that he almost loses his job. Lotario takes him to the transient hotel for sailors that he frequents, but Florentino has no interest in losing his virginity to anyone but Fermina. Instead, he eats gardenias and drinks perfume to try and taste Fermina. After a month his mother berates him for his passivity, so he returns to Fermina to ask for her response.
She had become almost panicked with the idea of responding and fear of her father's suspicions, so she tells Florentino the truth--that she did not know how to respond. He cajoles her to promise to write him back by the end of her vacation. Escolastica finally brings him Fermina's response, and Florentino is delirious with joy.
In the three months that follow, not a day passes that they do not write to each other, and they fall into devastating love although they will not have another chance to see each other alone until Juvenal Urbino dies over fifty years later. Florentino's letters become more and more passionate and almost delirious. Fermina, who has much less opportunity to write and is more reticent, writes terser and more matter-of-fact letters in response. Florentino composes a waltz for Fermina called "The Crowned Goddess" and serenades her with it repeatedly from just within earshot so that her father will not suspect anything. After almost two years of correspondence, Florentino formally proposes marriage in a letter. She puts off responding for four months but finally accepts his proposal.
Transito Ariza and Florentino work on preparing the practical side of the marriage. Transito starts renovating their home with her savings, and Florentino secures a promotion in the Postal Agency. The engagement is set to last two years and to remain secret. Florentino starts to spend more and more time at the transient hotel, where he is given a room, not for prostitution but to satisfy his insatiable appetite for reading sentimental love poetry. His love for Fermina is such that he is never tempted to stray, even when one of the hotel workers comes on to him strongly.
Four months before the date set to formalize their engagement, Lorenzo Daza comes looking for Florentino. One of Fermina's teachers had caught her writing a love letter to Florentino in class, notified Lorenzo, and expelled Fermina. Lorenzo immediately sends Escolastica away, knowing that she must have been complicit, and then goes to find Florentino. He tells Florentino that his one goal in life is to make his lady a daughter--and Florentino must not stand in his way. Florentino refuses to back down without Fermina's order, so Lorenzo takes Fermina away on a long journey intended to make her forget.
The journey is hard and dangerous, but once they make it to the home of Fermina's Uncle Lisimaco Sanchez, her cousin Hildebranda gives her a letter that came for Fermina from Florentino. They are able to keep in touch throughout the year and a half that Lorenzo keeps Fermina away. While she is away, Florentino decides to salvage a shipwrecked treasure so that he can shower her with gold. He finds a young, talented swimmer, Euclides, to accompany him and dive for the treasure, and after a few weeks they begin to find treasure. Florentino eventually shows the treasure to Transito, but she tells him that Euclides has been scamming him.
Lorenzo finally brings Fermina back home, but on the day of her arrival there is such a heavy downpour and she is so soaked that Florentino does not recognize her, thinking she has not returned. Lorenzo gives Fermina the role of housekeeper, and she revels in her new responsibility. Florentino realizes that she has returned, and while trying to figure out how to approach her, he sees her shopping with Gala Placidia. He follows her while she shops, finally speaking to her from right behind her. As soon as she sees him she feels utterly disenchanted. That afternoon she sends Gala with a note ending their engagement, returning all his letters and keepsakes, and asking for hers in return.
The main thrust of Part Two of Love in the Time of Cholera is to develop the relationship between Florentino and Fermina. More generally, this part deepens the novel's complex treatment of love. In developing the early relationship between Florentino and Fermina, as he did with Fermina and Urbino in the first part, Marquez creates an ambiguous picture of the love between the two young people. This part leaves the reader deeply unsure of what exactly Fermina feels for Florentino.
Florentino's feelings are not as unambiguous as they seem. He eats roses and gardenias, drinks perfume, and exhibits symptoms of cholera, all out of love. Yet, his overly effusive style, his obsession with his own obsession, makes it hard to take his love completely seriously. Compared with Fermina's much more reticent style, Florentino's style suggests that he is loving thoughtlessly. To some degree he is swept up in the idea of being in love.
Fermina's lack of signs of passion, especially when compared with Florentino's, make her love for him less sure. She seems to fall into it by chance and convenience, more interested in the love he feels for her than in Florentino himself. But we might trust the narrator's account that for a few years at least, she is desperately in love with him as well. Although reluctant to agree to his proposal, once she does so, she considers herself fully committed to him, and in her letters she plans for their domestic future together.
But her agency is limited. Escolastica decides when it is time to let Florentino make his first move. Florentino is doing all he can to persuade her of his love. And most of all, her father successfully influences her feelings when he ships her out of reach for more than a year; despite Florentino's letters, her father's plan succeeds, at least for now.
This section also introduces the very important theme of letters and of writing more generally. There are only three times in this section when Fermina and Florentino speak in person; the rest of the time--over almost four years--they communicate only by letter. Their love is built almost entirely on what can be expressed in writing. Mysteriously, the reader has not seen the text of any of these letters, receiving only descriptions of their general tone via the narrator. The fact that the reader feels the lack of the letters strongly underscores their importance. The narrator's choice to withhold the letters suggests that the text of the letters is not significant, as though the love could have been expressed in different words. True enough, the love built through their letters fails to stand up to the physical separation and then the failed personal encounter. But one also should remember that the persuasive power of the young Florentino is probably not up to the level of romantic poetry, despite his insatiable reading; they are writing for each other, each perceiving the other as the sole intended audience, and readers might be disappointed to see the quality of Florentino's or Fermina's prose.
Whether their love is real or not is thus left ambiguous. The situation is most dire at the end of the section when Fermina calls off their engagement the moment she sees him. She apparently believes that she has made a huge mistake, now that she feels no love for him. Marquez has used this encounter to build suspense and launch the next part of the plot, but in terms of love, he intentionally leaves readers unsure of the reality of their love for one another. For evidence of this intention, consider the end of the novel when Florentino and Fermina discuss the event. Florentino still loves to look back on it and make reference to it, but Fermina believes that it was meaningless and too far back to matter. To understand their different perspectives late in life, readers need to develop an understanding of their perspectives at the time, and these facts are unclear. Is the failed encounter a matter of bad timing, relative immaturity, or melodrama on Florentino's part, or a new spirit of independence on Fermina's? The intentional ambiguity in their early relationship adds to the complexity of the characters and to the novel's complex presentation of love. Despite romantic idealism about love--represented by the young Florentino--love is complicated by family, professions, and the other rational and irrational complexities of life.