Breakfast at Tiffany’s

book by Truman Capote

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have been a Capote fan since my early twenties, when reading In Cold Blood inspired  me to read  his entire oeuvre from Other Voices Other Rooms straight through to the drug-addled Answered Prayers and, more recently, his rediscovered manuscript, the ostensible precursor to Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Summer CrossingCapote was a hard working  writer who cared a lot about sentences and craft and was a painstaking revisionist–something we all can remember as we gasp over good writing: it usually took a lot of drafts to get there. He had a way of maintaining his own sharp observational lens throughout an enormously long career, constantly re-evaluating his work and always attempting to become a better writer. His entire introduction to Music For Chameleons which was published after his most acclaimed book, In Cold Blood, is a disclaimer that he had been wrong all along, he had only just now, figured out how to write. His non-fiction character portraits in that book and in magazines became the model for the way to do it. I doubt any celebrity piece in Vanity Fair doesn’t owe a nod  to Capote’s ability with character observation: read the book’s “A Beautiful Child” or his piece on Elizabeth Taylor. He had a keen eye for the nuances of humanity and used them in his fiction and non-fiction until, sadly, drugs and alcohol clouded his ability.

I haven’t re-approached Breakfast at Tiffany’s for several years, not since re-examining In Cold Blood in graduate school or since reading Summer’s Crossing. But as the book’s fifty year anniversary is upon us, and, as I am struggling with a heroine in my novel-in-progress, I decided it was high time for a re-read.

I was surprised that descriptions of Manhattan, one of the few things that evidenced glimmers of brilliance in the troubled Summers Crossing (there was a reason the book was found in a box of trash left out on the curb), were spare in Tiffany’s. Instead of merely providing a tableau,  Capote brings up descriptions of New York to provide us with the heightened awareness a person feels when something extraordinary happens. We are so often told to describe our surroundings in fiction, we tend toward the standard long-shot here-we-are-and-here’s-what-it-looks-like introduction. But Capote opens his novel thus,

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.”(1)  He goes on to describe the apartment itself.

It is not until, in the glow of getting his first story published, the narrator goes out on the town with Holly that we were given the scope of the island, “That Monday in October, 1943. A beautiful day with the buoyancy of a bird.” (45) and our narrator leads us on a grand montage from drinking Manhattans in a bar, down Fifth Avenue,  through a beautifully described Central Park finally landing in Woolworths.

Setting can create mood, foreboding and romance, but it is used so subtly here to give us a character’s sense of ebullience, that moment in life where, out of simple elation, we pay more attention to our surroundings.

Holly herself, made an icon by Audrey Hepburn’s captivating and breathless performance in the movie, is a great deal more complicated in the book. Lulamae Barnes was orphaned as a child and sexually molested in foster care; this is casually mentioned, “I’ve only had eleven lovers–not couning anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count. Eleven. Does that make me a whore?” (65) She is lured into marriage at fourteen in Texas to a widower with four children and manages to escape to New York to recreate herself as a fast-talking devil-may care socialite, Holly Golightly.

Capote has the eyes of his narrator to observe Holly’s goings on, but it is in her dialogue that we get to the heartbreaking poetry of a damaged person whose outrageous parties, most torrid love affairs or found fortunes won’t ever truly heal. In a toast to her long lost husband whom she sent back to Texas on a bus, she says, “Good luck: and believe me, dearest Doc—it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” (60)

When her brother Fred dies in the war, Holly has a vision that “the Fat Woman” has him, the Fat Woman being her version of Death. Holly loses a pregnancy with a Brazilian she was meant to marry, suffers a scandal, losing the promise of marriage along with the baby and our narrator tries to talk her out of fleeing to Brazil. She says, “And if you lived off my particular talents, Cookie, you’d understand the type of bankruptcy I’m describing. Uh, uh, I don’t just fancy a fade-out that finds me belly-bumping around Roseland with a pack of West Side Hillbillies. While the excellent Madame Trawler sashayes(sic) her twat in and out of Tiffany’s. I couldn’t take it. Give me the fat woman any day.” (80) Holly, despite her bravado, navigates life just this side of shattered.

The movie, needing to sell tickets, created a romance between our narrator and Holly, to round out a lovely ending. But in the book, this narrator’s love is not romantic, and describes something a great deal more particular and human : “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.” (61) Capote so deftly describes a completely non-romantic infatuation that all of us have had flutter through our chests at least once.

Holly scrambles through life with more passion and lack of thinking than your average person and her nonstop clever dialogue and slapdash chic lifestyle makes her deeply appealing, but Capote maintains the difficulties our narrator has with Holly’s tremendous appeal and her myopic self-involvement. She is a complicated friend to have and more than once, he gives her up for lost.

Capote is not content with story clichés, nor character clichés.  This is no romantic love story, there is no simple solution. Holly is not your average tragedy waiting to happen. Holly is not the Heroine-Who-Cannot-Escape-Her-Past, nor is she the Live-Fast-Die-Young-Reckless femme fatale. She is not the girl, who, with a bit more polish, could have made a go of it in society, or in the movies. She is the corners and subtleties of fragile human existence and the simple scramble to get a toehold in this life.

Nor does she come to an untimely tragic end, or happy end. She is one of those larger personalities we encounter in life, one of those complicated, fragile friendships that never quite leave us. Our narrator eventually finds Cat, the feline Holly heartlessly threw out of a cab as she headed for the airport. Cat is well taken care of in a new home and the narrator tells us, “I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.” (85) No further explanation, no solid answers. The novella ends.

As we struggle on with our individual characters, it’s important to remember that it is the original ones who last–the ones who don’t fulfill a role we’ve seen before, but go forward in whatever manner is consistent with their characters. Holly in all of her carefully wrought humanity and singular observations, in her brash decisions and cracking façade is an original. As I go back into a character with more depth, I need to remember that human stories don’t always have a predestined arc, that characters can grow, but stifle, too and that a simple human observation of an average day can overpower a character who follows a predictable more dramatic route.

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2 thoughts on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s

  1. Pingback: Novella reviews: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hardboiled & Hard Luck | A Good Stopping Point

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