Complex World of Party Animal Holly Golightly [Review]

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Today she’d be classed as a ‘celeb “ or a socialite. The kind of girl whose party-loving, free-wheeling lifestyle fills newspapers and magazines with gossip and sparkle.

Holly Golightly was not the original “IT” girl but she is the character forever synonymous with a dazzling, sophisticated, glamorous way of life. It’s an image cemented into the public consciousness by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, carefree and charismatic. 

Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

However, Truman Capote’s novella provides us with a far more complex figure. His Holly Golightly is rather a lonely figure, a girl whose carefree persona is a front, and one she protects fiercely. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York, mainly around a brownstone building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The un-named narrator, an aspiring writer, gets his first glimpse of Holly when she arrives home late at night, and tries to rouse another tenant because – once again – she’s lost her apartment key.

… she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness…  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.

Holly, he learns, has no job. She lives by socialising with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. She hopes to marry one of them.

Is Holly Golightly a prostitute?

This was a question Capote tried to address in a 1968 interview with Playboy. Holly Golightly, he said, was a modern day version of a Geisha girl.

Holly Golightly was not precisely a callgirl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

Holly, with her curious lifestyle and outspoken views, fascinates the narrator. Over the course of a year, they become close friends. 

Who is the real Holly Lightly?

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

The narrator only gets a glimpse of her past through the fragments she occasionally reveals. She talks about her childhood as “an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not”.

We never know if Holly is making this up or if she’s describing her actual childhood, but the narrator doesn’t think it squares up with the girl he has come to know.

But when he asks any direct questions, she clams up again.

She has, it turns out,  one obvious reason to be secretive.

Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae. And she’s not a single girl but a child bride who ran away to New York to escape her hillbilly husband and her step-children.

Capote’s narrative presents us with a subtler reason, one that gives us more more reason to sympathise with this girl. 

Orphaned as a young child, she’d been sent with her brother to live with relatives who treated them badly.

Well, you never saw a more pitiful something. Ribs sticking out everywhere, legs so puny they can’t hardly stand, teeth wobbling so bad they can’t chew mush. … She had good cause to run off from that house.

Secrecy as a form of protection

Too damaged to have a deep emotional connection with anyone but her brother, she has fabricated a new identity as a form of protection. If she can isolate herself emotionally from other people, then she can always be in control.

She won’t even allow herself to become attached to the cat she found by the river one day. ” We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and, so am I”, she says at one point. And later on, when she is about to leave the country; she defends her decision to let the cat loose.

We just met by the river one day: that’s all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never – ” she said, and her voiced collapsed … 

Holly tries to convince herself that she’s happy being alone. But is she?   I’d like to imagine her enjoying her new life in Argentina but reading between the lines, I suspect not. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the film version, I prefer the novella’s more complex portrayal of Holly Golightly. Capote gives us plenty of reasons not to like this girl. She steal’s another girl’s fiancée, shows little concern for who she inconveniences as long as she gets what she wants and acts as a messenger for an imprisoned gangster.  

But Capote has also made Holly Golightly a sympathetic character; one that embraces the good things in life as a way of hiding from its darker side. By the end, we wish her well.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Fast Facts

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was bought by Harper’s Bazaar. A change of editor resulted in requests to change some of the language which was considered too ‘tart’ and unsuitable. Capote was incensed and sold his work instead to Esquire magazine who published it in 1958.
  • Holly was originally named Connie Gustafson. Truman Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly and then Holly. He apparently based the character of on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances.
  • The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to 1960 rather than the 1940s, and had the narrator and Holly fall in love.
  • I read this as part of my #15booksofsummer reading project and my Classics Club project.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 24, 2019, in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. It was just like Hollywood to take a complex story and make it trite. I like the movie like I like Fred Astaire, you suspend your cynicism for 90 minutes. I’m not sure the written Holly is likeable but she sure deserves our sympathy.

  2. I haven’t read the book or seen the film but from your description the novella does sound the more interesting of the two. I fear I might end up hating Holly because of the cat incident though… 😼

  3. What do you think about that film ending in which she falls in love. Do you think it fails to fit with the Holly you learned about in the novella?

  4. Lovely post! I haven’t read the book or seen the film although I do have a copy of both. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe in the film rather than Audrey Hepburn?

  5. Great post! Much as I love the film (Hepburn is great), the book is definitely better – it has an edge to it missing from the filmed version (which is of course much softened for mainstream viewers). You remind me I need to read more Capote.

  6. Excellent review. It reminded me that elsewhere I have read recently that someone has written a novel based around the character Marie Claire in Peter Sarsted’s song “Where do you go to my lovely” – a character with a history not unlike that of Capote’s Holly!

  7. I prefer the book too, though Audrey Hepburn was the perfect choice for the film. I am so glad that I read Capote’s short fictions before I read In Cold Blood, because I would never have read anything of his again if I’d read that first!

  8. Such a great examination of the character! I do agree that the book version feels more complex.

  9. I love this book and I love the film. They are clearly different, the time period in particular, and the book does provide a more complex portrait of a fascinating character. Great review.

    • I think you almost have to forget that the film is supposed to be based on the film. If you approach film and book as independent entities you can enjoy them on their own merits

  10. I’ve read the book and watched the movie, and I did enjoy both. But as a romance writer and lover of all things HEA, I have to admit, the movie’s ending was brilliant. Kissing in the rain with Cat between them. Breakfast and Tiffany’s is one of my most favorite movies. 🙂 Capote did a great job with the novel! Thanks for the article.

  11. I love your insights into this. I found it quite a difficult novel to read in that I always felt too detached as a reader. But perhaps that might have been Capote’s aim. I do prefer it to the film though!

    • Interesting question about Capote’s intention. we don’t know for sure of course but I suspect he wanted us to feel engaged in Holly and what happened to her

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