Cuppa Tea Book Club: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

I’ve always associated Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, his acclaimed novelized account of real-life murders in Holcomb, Kansas. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he also wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the novella behind one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic comedies.

Curiosity led me to pick up the book, to see if this would be one of the rare cases when the film is better than the book. I’ve never read Capote before this. Well, I can safely say now that the book is still better.

His prose in the novella is perfect. The word choices are simple and unpretentious, the sentences mostly short and straightforward, yet they somehow form gorgeous, quirky, and elaborate descriptions of people and places. So many times, I sense the tedious labour behind an author’s beautiful writing; how infuriating is it that Capote manages to do all this with no traces of effort?

Take his description of a man the narrator meets before entering Holly Golightly’s apartment party: “A creature answered the door. He smelled of cigars and Knize cologne. His shoes sported elevated heels; without these added inches, one might have taken him for a Little Person. His bald freckled head was dwarf-big: attached to it were a pair of pointed, truly elfin ears. He had Pekingese eyes, unpitying and slightly bulged. Tufts of hair sprouted from his ears, from his nose; his jowls were gray with afternoon beard, and his handshake almost furry.” 

Like I said: perfection. The worst part is, he’s funny, a funnier Fitzgerald. And this book is a less tragic Gatsby. Capote has accomplished something rare. I struggle to count on one hand the number of books that are at once sad, funny, moving, and written in stellar prose. Books typically miss at least one of those qualities.

Recently, I rewatched the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The first time I viewed it as a youngster, I somehow avoided being offended by Mickey Rooney’s controversial portrayal of Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbour. Fortunately, the character of Mr. Yunioshi is described with more dignity in the book, as a successful photographer from California who goes to Africa on a job, and he plays a minor but pivotal a role in uncovering Holly’s whereabouts in the beginning of the story.

But the book’s got its own concerns. Holly’s racist remarks casually delivered throughout the story would appall modern readers. Her character is not meant to be endearing, and she basically makes her living as a sugar baby in cafe society. In the movie, Holly is not racist and scrubbed of her potty mouth, but even there she’s at best a charming social climber and gold digger, and at worst a manipulative con artist. The thing is, I can’t help but imagine Audrey Hepburn when I read the book, even though Holly is described as a blonde, probably of the bombshell quality, since Capote had Marilyn Monroe in mind when casting for the film. Hepburn could play a mass murderer and still be likeable, so I wonder how I’d feel about Holly Golightly if I had read the book first.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Likability is of no importance. Holly is flawed and fascinating, and I can’t help but care what happens to her. Sorry to break it to the movie fans but the narrator is presumably gay and there is no love story except the platonic kind. Hollywood’s tidy endings are pure fantasy. I much prefer the gritty, realist version of the story in Capote’s making.

There are 3 ways to participate in the Cuppa Tea Book Club. If you don’t want spoilers, maybe don’t read the comments until you’re ready to participate. If you’re commenting, please warn others if you’re including spoilers.

1. Join the Cuppa Tea Book Club group on Goodreads, where there are discussion threads for each book, with no deadlines. Please jump in on any thread at any time and share your thoughts.

2. Use the hashtag #CuppaTeaBookClub to share what you think of the book on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

3. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

FacebookTwitterEmailShare

Get the monthly newsletter

Annie's fresh picks for ethical fashion, beauty, books, films, and more—not on the site or anywhere else.