As I already mentioned last month when I reviewed the book “If Cats Disappeared from the World,” I would recommend one book each month. In March, Truman Capote’s classic masterpiece “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” novelette is the book that captivated me. I read it in one evening, and the next day I could not stop myself from a movie night indulgence.
Why did I choose this book?
This book has stood on my bookshelf forever. I always wanted to read it, but I always found other books that raised my curiosity more in the moment. However, I had seen the movie several times and always admired the frankness of the main character, Holly. I also looked with admiration at the way Audrey Hepburn portrayed Holly and the Givenchy dresses she wore. At the same time, my experience showed me that usually books are better than movies in portraying characters’ psychological facets. So, I was curious how this book would live up to the high standards the movie had set for me.
What is the book about?
The story takes place in post-World War II New York, where an unnamed writer meets a young woman, Holly Golightly. She has unusual habits and a strange story, charming everyone with her cheerful temper, poignancy, wit, and naivete. Her job doesn’t have an official name, but it has similarities to an “American geisha.” She uses her charms and looks to afford her expensive and luxurious lifestyle.
The story takes place a few years after the meeting between the two, as the young writer remembers the period in which he lived in the apartment above her. She swept him into her world, being her confidante and the only other person to whom she reveals her true dream. Which is to find a place called home, where she could feel like nothing bad can happen. Just like she feels at Tiffany’s.
Nicknamed Fred by Holly, after her brother whom the narrator resembles, he assists in Holly’s breakups, pregnancy, self-tanning, and illegal activities. But never her actual mind or cares. He finds out bits of her story from her husband, Doc Barnes, whom she married when she was just 14. At that time, she was Lula Mae Barnes and she was a poor girl from Tulip, Texas. O.J. fills in the rest of the story. Berman, who taught her French and got Holly an audition for a Hollywood movie for which she refused to participate.
After her brother died, she almost married a rich Portuguese. She got in trouble with the law for unknowingly transmitting encrypted messages for a mafia mogul Sally Tomato. And she abandons her cat into an unfriendly neighborhood and goes to Rio. From there, she also arrives in Buenos Aires. From there, we no longer know her whereabouts. However, there are rumours that she charmed some Africans from a tribe to sculpt her portrait, which is the way the book both begins and ends.
We do not know with certainty her past, present, or future. We are only witnesses to a small fragment of Holly Golightly’s presence in New York, told from the perspective of a platonic friendship with her neighbor writer.
Why is this book a good recommendation?
Easy and classic read
This book is a classic romance novelette. Esquire Magazine published it in 1958. It was quite scandalous at the time due to the language used and the subject matter. However, it was very successful because of the lively portrayal of the New York society in the 40s and the character’s uniqueness. It has around 100 pages and is an easy one evening lecture or a few days reading while in transit. The book has an abundance of themes in which everyone can find something to relate to, including isolation, friendship, dreams, hopes, memory and the past, transience, freedom and confinement, home, and love.
Influences from other literary classics
Reading this book also reminded me of some other literary classics I loved and made me feel nostalgic. This, for me, is a plus. A first similarity noticed by many even on Goodreads is between Breakfast at Tiffany and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both masterpieces revolve around a charismatic and alluring socialite with humble yet sketchy beginnings but wearing a mask of very attractive societal glamour.
I would also draw a comparison between Holly and Lolita, the main character of Vladimir Nabokov. Both heroines are really young. Their frank and yet playful sexuality is attracting male characters, who pine and lust around them. Holly married at age 14 to a man that already had children from another marriage. Her age resembling the drama of Lolita.
Finally, I also see some similarities related to the tense platonic relationship between Holly and the unnamed narrator and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises characters Lady Brett and Jake.
The vague details
We get to know everything there is about a moment of platonic friendship. But also, we get to feel the fragility of life. Like a seaward-moving ship, Holly disappears to unknown destinations. And it is the reader’s duty to fill in the blanks about her past and her future. Truman Capote only lets you know the present. There are only vague details hinting to possible timelines from her childhood or her adulthood. After putting the book down, I had a palpable sense of loss. Even though it is a story about how to be young and successful in New York City in the 40s, the sadness of the expected love story that never happens and the feeling of loss caused by the disappearance of both Holly and her cat make the book one to be remembered for a long time after finishing its last line.
The psychology behind
Much of the book is concerned with the masks we use to disguise reality and to help us create a new world in our minds that we love to be a part of. Holly is a “real phony”, an apparent contradiction of terms, but a great compliment to her. She may be reckless and frivolous, indulging in all her whims and pleasures. But she is showing it out front and not hiding it from anyone.
It may be hard to like Holly’s present behavior and lack of emotions and emotional connections with other people. But she is true to herself and refuses to wear a mask. Even though everyone else thinks she is wearing one. She was called sometimes a “call girl” (read: prostitute). But a “gold-digger” term is more appropriate. However, she is just a hurt and broken kid running from her problems and living life with the innocence and worry-free attitude. I appreciate her for achieving this. She hopes that the glare and shine of everything she honestly loves will be blinding enough to completely obscure her past. It works for her perfectly while still being true to herself.
One of the main characters is a cat
Holly’s cat is extraordinary. It not only reminds me of my own because of its orange color but also has strong symbolism. It shows the unwillingness and inability to be tied down and caged of a true dreamer. Its lack of name is a symbol of a lack of roots, of feeling alone, and not belonging anywhere or to anyone. Holly loses the cat in the end. This is just a way to portray all the fears of the main characters and the fatality of loss and fade in the wide world.
Without the book and the movie, the evening black dress with pearls to go along with it would not be popular. So, we must thank “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for making it famous and providing us with this gorgeous, universal, and easy-to-style evening dress.
Where does this book recommendation fail?
First, Holly is a very hard-to-love character from a feminist point of view. She loves easily and leaves even more easily. She gets angry fast and she is quick to forgive and forget. Spending money on a whim and expensive luxuries she cannot actually afford is part of her routine. She pays her rent by accepting financial favors from her admirers whom she leaves hanging. And she also gets in legal trouble by weekly transmitting the “weather report” of a jailed mobster to his partner outside.
In this way, Holly is a perfect analogy for consumerism. The book vaguely implies she sells her body to rich men (commodifying herself) to acquire material things that she dreams of (consumes). She is a capitalist’s dream.
That uniqueness of character was so captivating that Holly became a role model for millions of women aspiring to live her lifestyle. Yet, none could match up, which only led to disappointments and unrealistic views of life. I don’t think a woman could have conjured such plinth-like respect for a feminine character that escapes reality, such as Holly. Yet, the way a man portrayed her became so alluring and captivating for entire generations.
Partially informed by the post-#metoo era and taking into consideration the time in which the novel was written, I cannot think of it but as a tragedy disguised as a farce. We are talking about a main character who was possibly abused as a child, an underage bride whose new identity is constructed on providing pleasure to men. Instead of her situation being presented in the book as it actually is, Capote presents Holly as she lets others see her. A fun, loving, good-time girl. I would have loved to know more about her dreams and ambitions instead of the emotionless mask she shows to men in New York.
Language and prejudices
Inevitably, modern readers may have moral issues reading the racial slurs in the book, which are now clearly unacceptable (e.g. sob, nigger-lip). However, these issues are partially alleviated by the relaxed approach Holly has to human sexuality and her own playful-maybe-serious references to her sexuality (“Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what?” and “I’d settle for Garbo anyway“).
Despite the derogatory language and the vast generalizations made about people based on their sexual preferences, I feel that without them, an important aspect of Holly’s frankness and honesty is lost. While some of her words may make me cringe, I must also admit that they are entirely consistent with the character.
Favorite quotes from the book
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
- “You take a man that likes to walk, a man like me, a man’s been walking in the streets going on ten or twelve years, and all those years he’s got his eye out for one person, and nobody’s ever her, don’t it stand to reason she’s not there.”
- “You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend.”
- “For I was in love with her. Just as I’d once been in love with my mother’s elderly colored 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.”
- “A person ought to be able to marry men or women or – listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it.”
- “If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”
- “I don’t. I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.”
- “I’m very scared, Buster. Yes, at last. Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away”
- “If I do feel guilty, I guess it’s because I let him go on dreaming when I wasn’t dreaming a bit”
- “Every day she’d walk a little further: a mile, come home. Two miles, and come home. One day she just kept on.”
- “[…] our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words.”
- “You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somaliland. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”
- “The answer is good things only happened to you if you’re good. Good? Honest is more what I mean… Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.”
- “Never love a wild think, Mr. Bell”, Holly advised him. “That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild thinks. A hawk with a broken wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do so, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
- “I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.”
- “The average personality reshapes frequently, every few years even our bodies undergo a complete overhaul – desirable or not, it is a natural think that we should change.”
The book was adapted by Blake Edwards in 1961, with Audrey Hepburn as Holly and George Peppard as Paul/the unnamed narrator from the book. It is a romance, instead of a tragedy, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless.
After reading the book, I admit I was not a fan of how the story was changed. The platonic friendship became a romance. The dark portrait of Miss Golightly portrayed in the novel became a lonely, lost, and waiting-to-be-rescued picture of an adorable Holly, who needs a knight in shining armor. The book’s character cannot be caged, trained, or rescued. The movie’s character is, in the end, caged, trained, and rescued.
I cannot deny, though, that the film is a masterpiece. Every time I think about glamour and beauty, Audrey Hepburn in the role of Holly Golightly is one of its epitomes. I love her dresses, her style, and her orange-nude lipstick. The two characters also complement each other quite well. Audrey’s charm is absorbed by the tragic mask of Holly, making the character lovable and admired.
Moreover, the movie is even less anchored in reality than the book. And the ending is completely changed, even though there are some implied passages in the book that the narrator may be homosexual. The cat does not disappear. “Fred”/Paul and Holly end up together and find their happy ever after in a pouring rain. However, this ending might bring some satisfaction to those readers who do not like open endings and not knowing what happens to the characters.
Truman Capote was against casting Audrey Hepburn as Holly, preferring his friend Marilyn Monroe, who resembles the book character more, including the hair color. Nevertheless, I cannot picture anyone better than Audrey for portraying the lively, innocent party girl living a glamorous life in the Big City.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote is a great book. I loved reading it from start to finish, despite the several frowns due to the occasional offensive language. It has a beautiful limpid style. The story is a tragic love of a man who met a strange, nonconformist, and impossible-to-cage, or even to describe woman. And he ends up forever stuck in the friend-zone. Or maybe the best reason why I love this book so much is that the main character is an orange cat.
Maybe the secret of this book’s masterpiece is the funny and kind side of Holly. Or the shocking frankness she exhibits. She mentions at some point that marriage between people of the same sex should be legal. And we are talking about a book written in 1958.
But I actually think I love the book the most because of Holly’s complete personality. She managed to leave all her traumas behind and to go on a self-discovery journey. All while remaining true to herself. She lived the life she wanted to live, and I admire her character for that. If you are a fan of early feminist movement books, this is a book to read.
This novelette is a small 100-page book that you can read in less time than watching the movie. It is a drifting fragrance in the New York atmosphere of the 1940s that you say hello to and then too soon goodbye. It is the perfect embodiment of the city, the American dream, and the New York glamour society.
Regarding the order of reading the book and watching the movie, as both are masterpieces, I would recommend reading the book first.
Have you seen the movie or read the book? What was your opinion about them? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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