After reading In Cold Blood, I felt interested in reading Truman Capote’s other most-famous work, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For one thing, I was intrigued by his strange career of seemingly never landing on the same genre twice. For another, this is my experience with Breakfast at Tiffany’s: In the nineties, the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something was one of my favorites of the decade. It was a song my old boyfriend and I used to sing along to in the car, having good times and bonding over music. I still like this song and have it on my Spotify playlist, have considered singing it at cafes. Shortly after marrying (in 2001), my husband and I discovered we were both interested in the movie—me because of the song (which refers to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as a movie and says nothing about it except that the singer and some girl “really like[d] it” so that’s “what [they]’ve got” in common). Kevin was interested because he had never seen the movie and he was super into movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a classic. We watched it aaaaand we sorta hated it. It would not be something “we’ve got.” I’ll talk more about this later. But then years later I discovered that Breakfast at Tiffany’s wasn’t just a cult classic movie, but a novella written by Truman Capote, and, when reading In Cold Blood and watching the movie Capote, I learned that this book was famous before the movie. This it is considered one of his best works. Huh.
Written in the late 50s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is somewhere between a short story and a novella, and the way it is most often found nowadays is combined with three short stories in book form. (We’ll also get to that a little later.) The story goes like this: as unnamed narrator (who we understand to be very similar to Capote) lives in an apartment complex in New York City in the 1940s and is a struggling/beginning writer. His downstairs neighbor enters his life when she shifts from torturing an upstairs neighbor to ringing the narrator’s buzzer at all times of the day and night because she can’t be bothered to keep track of her keys and does keep an unconventional schedule. Fortunately, this woman is young, startlingly beautiful, and also alluring in quantities that contradict her obnoxious habits and silly life decisions. Thus we meet Holly Golightly, a character that would become a cultural icon, first through this story and then through the portrayal by Audrey Hepburn.
The narrator spends the rest of the story interacting with Holly on and off as time passes, as a friend, a sort of detective, occasionally a frenemy, and always surprised by her zest, her independence, her determination, and her pinball course through life. She calls him “Fred” because he reminds her of her brother and he slowly learns who she really is, where she has really come from, and where she is trying to get to. Hollywood is involved, the mafia, the high life of the City, politicians, the rural South, parties, the cops, and of course, Tiffany’s (though very little, actually). There is never any concern for romance, because the narrator is gay and also because the story opens up briefly in the story-future, where the narrator visits an old hang-out to talk news of the now globe-trotting, elusive Holly. Golightly really does grow on you, as does the narrator, though the story is light and at times appalling (because of everyone’s behavior), and it maybe doesn’t lean hard enough on the plot for some readers.
I have to agree with an article found about Holly Golightly: it is combination of the book and movie that have made her an icon. It’s like, I wouldn’t have really thought too much about either of them, but together you just really pull for Holly. Maybe even admire her, which many people have done. But there are issues with Holly as an idol. Capote may have managed to portray (with Hepburn) a charm that he claims for his special character—against all odds—but she is still not particularly feminist by today’s standards, at least in some ways. I do take issue with those who say she is a “call girl” (read: prostitute). That is reductionist/incorrect. She is far more complicated than that, though I think “gold-digger” would be accurate. She’s also just a hurt and broken kid running from her problems. Still, despite her frivolity and levity, you pull for her. She is capital-C charming.
I can’t recommend this book very strongly, but I enjoyed reading it and then watching the movie. If you are into classic books and/or cinema, admire Audrey Hepburn or have a thing for cult classics, or if you are keen on the mid-century or studying early feminism, then these are all reasons to pick up a copy of each and work your way (quickly) through them. I would read first and then watch.
So the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s takes place in the early 60s instead of the 40s. That was when it was made, though it feels like an exaggeration of the 60s-turn-of-the-decade, perhaps because of the hectic, extra-large lifestyle of the characters. This is city life: wealthy, powerful, New York City life in the 60s—something the masses might have been gaping at and desiring, but not really life for most. Anyhoo, the story changes very little with the time change, but there are a lot of other changes made to the story, too. Big ones. For one (and I think because of the reasons I just gave above about the time period and “normal” people), the narrator–now called Paul Varjak–‘s sexual orientation is changed. This means that he is given a whole new situation and subplot which is remarkably like Holly’s. (He is a “kept man.”) This also means that this story is now a romance (instead of a tragedy). Remarkably, Holly is still Holly and Hepburn plays the part perfectly. She is Holly. And Peppard plays an attractive and alluring Paul, though his character is not the narrator of the book.
Before I conclude, however, I have to warn you strongly that Mickey Rooney’s neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, is one of the most problematic portrayals of a minority in American cinematic history. Of course, Mickey Rooney is not Japanese nor looks Japanese, so they gave him these crazy prosthetic teeth, maybe taped his eyes/shot him from below?, and gave him a horrendous and exaggerated accent. His part is slapstick (which is not in sync with the rest of the movie) but today’s caring viewer will NOT find any of it funny. It’s appalling, actually, and should be offensive, as he bumbles his way through a wildly stereotyped interpretation of a Japanese man. You can take it as historically instructive or you can refuse to watch the movie. I hope it at least grates on you as you watch it. Maybe talk it out. Celebrate the way this wouldn’t fly today and how we can get even better at cultural sensitivity.
Besides Mr. Yunioshi, poor guy, I did enjoy the movie the second time around, either because I had read the book or because it’s a couple decades later. My conclusion is the same as above: if you think this is something you might particularly enjoy, then read the story first and then watch the movie.
(The Grass Harp and Music for Chameleons also look like interesting reads.)
“You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend” (p9).
“Reading dreams. That’s what started her walking down the road” (p55).
“If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky” (p59).
“For I was in love with her. Just as I’d once been in love with my mother’s elderly [Black] cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named McKendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too” (p60).
I already told you I like this song by Deep Blue Something and have liked it since it dropped. The band’s only popular song, stateside, I heard it often on the alternative rock station in the nineties. It’s a bit light and pop-y, but it’s fun to sing along to and even dance around in the kitchen to. People enjoyed it; critics were split.
BONUS REVIEW: A COUPLE SHORTS
As I said, copies of Breakfast at Tiffany’s often include three short stories with the novella. My copy doesn’t even say this on the cover, however, they are there. I already reviewed “A Christmas Memory” HERE, but following are my speed-reviews of the other two shorts.
HOUSE OF FLOWERS
“How do you feel if you’re in love? she asked. Ah, said Rosita with swooning eyes, you feel as though pepper has been sprinkled on your heart, as though tiny fish are swimming in your veins.”
Whew! This is a doozy. Written beautifully both on the levels of language and story. I had no idea what to expect and I might leave it that way for you, but I’ll tell you it is about a young, beautiful, Haitian prostitute who is looking for love. There are moments of beauty, horror, and sadness and deft description. It is basically unlike any story I’ve ever read, very memorable. If you enjoy short stories, read this one. There aren’t really any gimmicks (except, I suppose, turning conventional morality on its head), but the story and writing are compelling.
A DIAMOND GUITAR
“Now, recognizing his loneliness, he felt alive. He had not wanted to be alive. To be alive was to remember brown rivers where the fish run, and sunlight on a lady’s hair.”
Hm. It’s lush, like much of what Capote writes, and ultimately about people, especially people with things on their conscience. It’s a good story, I just didn’t love it. About a man serving a life sentence in a work prison in the pine forests of Alabama, and the new kid who arrives with a glass-studded guitar. A much shorter version of Of Mice and Men, or at least comparisons could be made.