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Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite
Only Oona by Tamatha Cain begins in 1927, when playwright Eugene O'Neill's family experiences newfound affluence due to his success, while young Oona O'Neill adapts to her parents' volatile moods, arguments, and eventual divorce. Oona prioritizes reading over formal education and bonds with friends Carol, Gloria, and Truman, remaining close as they come of age. Oona considers leveraging her famous name during WWII and vies for "Debutante of the Year" at The Stork Club. Her mother, Agnes, reenters her life, but Oona remains resolute about her pursuits. Oona heads to Hollywood, facing challenges in the film industry and unwanted advances. She finds solace in Charlie Chaplin's company and eventually marries him in 1943, later dealing with political concerns that led to their relocation to London. Despite challenges, Oona secures their finances, safeguarding Charlie's film reels and hidden funds and ensuring her family's financial stability.
I admit that going into Only Oona by Tamatha Cain, I knew neither Charlie Chaplin nor his wife Oona. They are of an era long before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to watch "real" movies, Chaplin's work was essentially lost to my generation in the avalanche of contemporary cinema. The good part here is that this is not Charlie's story; it is Oona's, and she has a legacy of her own that is worth sharing. That's the benefit of going to work blind—the true star shines brightest. Cain's writing is exceptional, and the crisscrosses through time allow us to better understand Oona's life in its full scope at a pace that Cain expertly narrates. The Great Depression served as part of the backdrop, and Cain's painting of a shifting world where we can visualize public disparity before sliding into high-society affairs, like Gloria Vanderbilt's wedding to Howard Hughes, is almost cinematic. Everything about this novel is pitch-perfect, and while I am grateful to have been introduced to Charlie Chaplin through it, I am even more grateful that Cain focused on Only Oona. Very highly recommended.