Although Fermina Daza may have erased Florentino Ariza from her memory, he has not stopped thinking of her since their long, troubled love affair ended fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago. When the affair ends, Florentino lives with hi s mother, Transito Ariza, her only child by a casual boyfriend who never recognizes Florentino as his lawful son, though he provides for him financially, in secret, until his death when the boy is ten years old. After his father's death, Florentino has no choice but to go to work, and serves as an apprentice in the Postal Agency where he meets Lotario Thugut, a German immigrant and the Agency's telegraph operator. Thugut teaches Florentino Morse Code and how to play the violin, skills which, combin ed with his forlorn, mysterious appearance, make him the most-desired man in his social circle. Girls hold lotteries to determine who will date him, and Florentino plays along — until the day he meets Fermina Daza and loses his innocence.

Florentino first meets Fermina when he goes to her house on the Park of the Evangels to deliver a telegram to her father, Lorenzo Daza, who is not held in high public regard. Lorenzo reports the telegram is good news, but tips Florentino with only a h andshake. As Florentino leaves the house, he notices Fermina giving a reading lesson to her Aunt Escolástica, whom he mistakes for her mother. Fermina and Florentino make brief eye contact, a small interaction that nonetheless sparks Florentino's pass ion.

Florentino learns that Lorenzo Daza has only lived in the city for two years; he had traveled there with his unmarried sister, a nun, and his thirteen year-old daughter, Fermina, named for her dead mother. Daza is known as a man of wealth, for he had paid cash for his home, though he appears to be unemployed. Fermina studies at the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. Florentino has no opportunity to approach Fermina, for her aunt always accompanies her on her walks to and from school. Each morning Florentino sits on a park bench and pretends to read, waiting for Fermina to walk past. He thinks of her obsessively, and writes her a short note which eventually becomes a sixty-to-seventy-page "dictionary of compliments." He is unsure of how to give her the letter, and confesses his romantic woes to his mother, his only confidant. She advises that Florentino not give Fermina the letter, but that he should first befriend her aunt.

Fermina, however, recognizes Florentino sitting on the park bench, and her aunt tells her that he has been sitting there for weeks, probably because he is in love with her. Fermina pities Florentino because he always looks ill, but her aunt explains that he is sick with love. Aunt Escolástica, more of a friend than an aunt, tells Fermina that Florentino dare not approach them because she is with her, and teaches Fermina sign language to use as a means of communication in forbidden love. Escolástica assure s Fermina that, one day, Florentino will give her a letter, for which Fermina prays he will deliver. However, her prayers go unanswered; Transito convinces her son not to deliver the letter he has written.

Fermina and Florentino pine for one another. He passes by her house and sees her sitting with her aunt Escolástica, wearing a garland of fresh flowers atop her head. For days, he sits in the park and watches her, unnoticed, and thinks that she looks l ike a 'crowned goddess.' On one such day, Escolástica leaves Fermina alone, and Florentino approaches. He asks that Fermina accept a letter from him, and she replies, without looking at him, that she cannot accept it without her father's permission; he d emands that she "get it," and that it is a matter of life or death.

Fermina instructs Florentino to return every afternoon, and to wait to approach again until she changes her seat, which she does on the following Monday. Florentino approaches on cue and gives her his letter. This letter, however, is not the epic statemen t he had written previously, but a simple, half-page note in which he professes everlasting love and fidelity. Suddenly, bird droppings fall on the embroidery Fermina is working on. Mortified, she tries to conceal them, but Florentino notices and assures her it is good luck. He offers Fermina the camellia he wears on his lapel, but she refuses because it is a "flower of promises." She then tells him to go, and not to return until she tells him so.