Book Title: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories
Author: Truman Capote
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Literature
Page Count: 160
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 2 hours
Date Finished: 1/26/17
Click here to find it on Amazon (New window)
My impressions: I’ve never liked the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s because I’m a little too empathetic to the main character, who finds himself chasing the alluring and enigmatic Holly Golightly through a series of misadventures until finally, they wind up together. The problem I’ve always found with the film is that Holly is incredibly shallow and manipulative, and yet the film’s main character is able to tame her with a sentimental gift, which seems like a betrayal of a great character. Fortunately, the book did not leave the same awful taste in my mouth by the ending; its version of Holly Golightly not only remains true to the marvelous character Truman Capote wrote, but is also content to leave her moving in her mysterious ways from start to finish.
It’s first important to note that the film and the book share the same basic plot progression and ideas; the story is largely about how the main character (in the novel, unnamed; in the movie, Paul) becomes enchanted by his mysterious neighbor and gets sucked into her life of intrigue, deception and manipulation. All of the big plot twists are present in both tellings, and the characters are largely the same. The difference is in tone. The novel is written from the point of view of a narrator coming across some evidence that Holly is still out in the world, working her magic on people in far-off places, and then reflecting on his encounters with her in the 1940s. The movie is more sequential, moving the story two decades ahead and modernizing the ideas for the audiences of the early 1960s.
But the story is actually far more interesting set in the World War II era because of the context. Holly is a woman who thrives in a climate where young men are off to war and older men are looking for young women to play with; her game is in going out and about New York City and manipulating men into giving her money to sustain her seemingly fabulous lifestyle. She is sexually liberated and has little sense of decorum, but she’s also fashionable and hidden, brazenly sharing embarrassingly forward personal details with strangers while refusing to offer anything in the way of specifics about who she is or where she’s come from.
Her entire character is subterfuge designed to create a mysterious allure. She has a name plate on her apartment that announces that she’s “traveling” when she is, in fact, just out and about town. She wears large dark prescription sunglasses to hide the fact that she can’t see very well. She speaks in an accent that makes it hard to place where she’s from, but slips into French words constantly to obscure the fact that she’s from the country. She often hangs around Tiffany’s (a famous jewelry store) and leads the salespeople on, but can’t afford to buy anything there. She positions herself as a young starlet and socialite, but she has left the film business and burned many bridges there, despite her agent’s best efforts. She makes men believe she’s eligible for their affections, but fails to tell them she’s a child bride with a husband and adopted children in her past. Even her apartment, which is sparsely furnished and looks like the home of someone who’s preparing to run away at any moment, leads people to think she’s modern and chic instead of hollow and deceitful. They see what they want to see in Holly, and she’s delighted to oblige, so long as they’re paying.
The main character gets closer to her than most do, and he begins to recognize that she is not just an empty person, but also a wild animal, and the novel has many brilliant little inclusions to drive those themes home. For example, Holly gives the narrator an empty bird cage as a gift, and makes him swear he’ll never keep a living thing inside it. The narrator finds himself unable to part with it, even after he realizes that it means nothing to Holly beyond that initial gesture. There’s even a hint that it’s stolen. The bird cage spells out everything there is to know about these two characters, and it’s one of many ways that Truman Capote reminds the reader that Holly is a creature of her own nature behaving in her own wild ways, not a woman hoping to become someone’s wife. The main character loves her, but it’s much like how Holly loves her cat; they’re just two creatures sharing a common path for awhile before going off in separate directions.
The movie also miscasts her character. Holly Golightly in the novel is blond and looks like an ideal woman of the 1940s; Capote apparently favored Marilyn Monroe to play her, and one gets a sense from the novella that the character is supposed to be greatly offensive to the more respectable women of the day. Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the character makes her thinner, more stylish, more sophisticated and more in line with the acceptable culture of the day. The scandal is in what she’s hiding, not in who she is.
Because Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novella, the publishers included three other short stories by Truman Capote. The other three stories in the book are perfectly fine, but far less captivating. Of the three, I liked “A Christmas Memory” the best, perhaps because the other two were just harder for me to connect with. (One is about a woman in Haiti who overcomes her checkered past and her spell-casting grandmother-in-law, and the other is about unrequited Platonic love between two men in a prison.) Apparently, “A Christmas Memory” is based somewhat on Capote’s experiences as a young man, and it tells an affecting story of a 7-year-old boy and an old, simple woman as they make fruitcakes for their “friends” (people they respect and admire, even if they don’t actually know them) before the boy’s shipped off to military school. It’s a nice story, full of richness and warmth, and it was a great way to end this book.