Book Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Yes, as much as I love Truman Capote and have read him and studied him for the past decade and a half, ever since I was in college, I have not read Breakfast at Tiffany’s until now. And even now, I listened to it on audio, but more about that later.

Everything you read about Breakfast at Tiffany’s that’s been written since the movie came out in 1961 pretty much comes from a point of view based on the movie.  It’s easy to read raving reviews of it on Amazon or Goodreads and distinguish between those whose opinions were probably somewhat persuaded by the movie and those who are writing strictly based on their perceptions of the book; some even mention the movie outright. And that’s exactly why I’m getting my review out before I see the movie for myself.  The book is much darker that I would expect the movie to be.

In fact, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an odd little novella told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, a writer who lives downstairs from Holly Golightly in a Manhattan brownstone apartment in the early 1940s.  Holly, 19, is a New York socialite, frequently mistaken as a prostitute.  As the writer, who is nicknamed “Fred” by Holly, befriends her, the true life of Holly is slowly revealed. Like almost every lead character in Capote’s early writing, Holly has a sordid past that she has sought escape from.

Like her creator, Holly is full of sass and clever one-liners, some of Capote’s best writing, and no doubt Audrey Hepburn in that lead role is truly spectacular. But I didn’t have to dig deep to find the true underlying meaning of Tiffany’s. It was obvious to me that Capote based Golightly on his own mother. Before her name change, Nina Capote was Lillie Mae Faulk from Alabama before moving to New York and taking up acquaintances, and later marriage, with rich wealthy men. We learn Holly was once actually backwoods Texas girl Lulamae Barnes, obviously also escaping the clutches of Southern soil in search of something better.

“Fred” acts as a reporter and friend. Even when he confesses his love for Holly, we know it’s only a friendly gesture. The fact that he remains nameless also eludes to the fact that Capote didn’t want the narrator to be mistaken for anyone else. Holly also has a cat that has no name, claiming that no one has a right to give anything a name unless it belongs to them. And so, we assume the narrator must not “belong” to anyone either, a feeling that Capote must have had as a child when his mother abandoned him with his older cousins, before his step-father adopted him and changed his name.

There’s a beautiful scene where Golightly buys “Fred” a bird cage for Christmas and makes him promise not to ever keep anything in it. Caught in the middle of an argument, thrown in the trash, and later rescued by “Fred,” the birdcage is a beautiful symbol for what the book is really about, how we all yearn to escape who we are and become someone else, to get out of our cages and be free. As I said, it really is some of Capote’s best writing.

Listening to Michael C. Hall read it made it that much more enjoyable. He even does the voices! His southern accent was divine and made me smile. True backwoods “cherruns” will certainly relate. I don’t regret having not had Breakfast at Tiffany’s until now. Knowing all that I do about Capote and his life made it a deep and satisfying read that I’ll think about from time to time again.

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