Book Review: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote

This story is none too new; it was published originally in Esquire in 1958, which means it’s nearing its 60th anniversary. But a few weeks ago, wandering about in Bushwick, I picked up a copy of a compilation of Capote’s novellas and short stories and decided to give them a go. In general I’m strict on reading the book before you watch the movie, but I watched the 1961 film (starring the inimitable Audrey Hepburn) at a friend’s house for a girls’ night and accidentally broke my rule. In this case, I don’t regret that, because if I’d read the novella first I doubt I’d have been interested in watching the movie at all.

Capote was a gifted writer, but his Holly Golightly is unlikable. In part, that is the fault of Capote’s language–Holly makes racist comments and weirdly disparaging remarks about lesbians, which will inevitably cause discomfort for a 21st century reader. She also comes across as much less human. She never seems to care about anyone or anything, and continues to maintain the mystery of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona. Capote and his unnamed narrator never give her room to breathe and exist. Even her outbursts have an aura of coolness, despite indications that she is unhinged.

The story of the novella is similar to that of the film. An unnamed protagonist narrates the story; he is a young aspiring author who is occasionally working and occasionally unemployed, yet seems to do well enough living in the same apartment building as a socialite who gets an influx of money from random wealthy men. He becomes fascinated with this socialite, Holly Golightly, who draws him into her strange world of alcohol, weed, and rich benefactors. Nicknamed “Fred” by Holly, after her brother whom the narrator supposedly resembles, he is privy to intimate moments of Holly’s life–her breakups, pregnancy, self-tanning, and illegal activities–but never her actual mind or cares. Married at fourteen years old, Holly ran away and has rebranded herself at nineteen years old as someone fit to be on the arm of successful older sugar daddies. The narrator observes her disheveled life with adoring and yet somehow condescending wonder.

In terms of structure, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a compact and interesting story with colorful characters. But for all the flash and color, no characters have real substance. They all are relatively stupid individuals, from the narrator to Holly to Holly’s ex-husband to Holly’s array of lovers. They all are around each other, having sex or getting wasted or being witness to some craziness, but no one understands or truly cares for each other. This may be a comment on the social scenes of wealthy New Yorkers, which Capote was well-acquainted with in the mid-20th century, but it lacks the punch of an actual comment because it says nothing except that people are shallow. And it is not only the rich New Yorkers who are shallow, it is also the clueless Doc Golightly from Texas and Holly herself.

Much of what could be powerful in the story amounts to just an interesting moment or side remark, like Holly’s casual aside that she has had eleven lovers, and she is “not counting anything that happened before [she] was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count” (Capote 82). Considering Holly married at fourteen, this means that she was having sex before she met her husband, possibly being sexually abused by the family that took her in right after her parents died or maybe some illicit relationship with her brother Fred (doubtful, but possible). Either way it is a serious moment that is not touched upon again. Holly’s mental illness, her “mean reds” that she copes with by visiting Tiffany’s, is glossed over as part of her strange allure. The narrator thinks she’s likely to end up in a mental hospital as dead or married or whatever, but he is not really ever concerned about her, just morbidly intrigued by her.

Like Capote’s only other story I read, “House of Flowers,” the story makes you wonder what Capote thought of women. As much as all the men in Holly’s life obsess over her, not one really respects her. The narrator speaks of Holly as if she’s a wayward child, ignorant and helpless, yet he craves her admiration. There is one memorably awkward scene where the narrator resists an urge to spank a naked Holly as he helps her apply self-tanner and she critiques his writing. The scene is not remotely sexual; it is like the narrator views her as a child in that moment. When she sits up and he sees her breasts, he is cowed. Some speculate that the narrator is supposed to be homosexual (like Capote himself), which would explain his lack of interest in Holly or her sexy friend Mag as sexual partners. However, the narrator comes across more as asexual, a sexless cipher who has no life or identity outside of his observations and occasional interactions with Holly.

The film, in contrast, is a blatant romance. I did like it a whole lot better than the book, though not strictly due to the romance. In the film, the young writer has a name, Paul Varjak, and an actual life–he receives money for his writing and apartment by being the boy toy of a rich older woman. This makes him and Holly more similar than either realizes at first, and one of the most interesting parts of the film is seeing the subtle ways each condemns the other for doing what they themselves are doing. Many of Holly’s most poignant thoughts are directly from the book–the mean reds bit, of course, but also her resistance to naming her cat and warning to never love a wild thing, but the film carries them off more meaningfully, as Holly learns something by the end. This may be partly thanks to Hepburn, who imbues Holly with vim and vigor even in her silliest scenes, but it is also the script itself, which allows for more than Capote’s several-pages long monologues and sudden scene changes. Also, Paul’s being in love with Holly makes his fascination seem more goal-oriented than the novella narrator’s condescending interest (as if Holly is some rare breed of animal) and therefore more relatable.

To conclude, I am adding Breakfast at Tiffany’s to my short list of Books That Are Not As Good As the Movie Adaptation. More on that list another time. I’m not particularly enthused to read more Capote, but what I have next in the volume is “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory,” so I will be reading those next, after I finish up some books for my next post at the end of the month. Capote was an exact writer, and his word choice is sharp, so I am interested to see more of his work for stylistic reasons. Here’s to hoping his female characters are fleshed out into real people in other stories.

Brittany Ann Zayas


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