May Read of the Month: “Only Oona” by Tamatha Cain

Tamatha Cain’s Only Oona (Orange Blossom Publishing, 2023) is not only a remarkable woman’s story; this outstanding historical novel shines as a glittering Who’s Who in the 1940s. With impeccable research, Cain brings Oona O’Neill Chaplin to life, stretching from her early years in the Bermuda countryside to teen years roaming the streets of Manhattan to married life in the U.S. and Switzerland.

Immediately, readers will care about Oona because she was a wounded, neglected child. Abandoned and rejected repeatedly by her famous father, playwright Eugene O’Neil, Oona was determined to marry a kinder, gentler man and provide a happy life for her own children.  Her teenage friends included Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus, and Truman Capote. She dated J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles, and later in life, Ryan O’Neal. She became an inspiration for Capote’s character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and J.D. Salinger’s Sally Hayes in Catcher in the Rye. At eighteen, she married fifty-seven-year-old Charlie Chaplin. Cain succeeds in capturing the personalities of all these famous people—and many more who played roles in Oona’s life.

Oona’s playwright father is portrayed as a narcissistic, despicable man. Her mother, also a writer, was not much better in her parenting skills although she was occasionally around. As a teen, Oona roamed the streets of Manhattan with no supervision. In a private school, the wealthy Carol Marcus befriended Oona and encouraged her to move into her family home since Oona’s mother was rarely home anyway. The girls bonded over novels, fashion, make-up, and boys:

Comparing their lives at fifteen and sixteen years old to those of the heroines in the novels they read, their lack of romance was the most terrible burden.

So terrible. The subtle humor here is delightful. Soon, the girls figured out how to dress and flirt to attract boys.

Carol also introduced Oona to her friend Gloria Vanderbilt. The threesome hung out together, yet there were times Oona is left out—as frequently happens when a third party is introduced to a friendship. Yet in some ways, Oona believed she and Gloria had more in common than she and Carol did:

She and Gloria shared more than looks. They shared the kinds of pasts that seemed to have no solid timeline, marked by scary moments and times of emptiness, loneliness, and determination. They also had parents who saw their children as pawns in a game where the most selfish one wins.

One thing all three girls agreed on: “the most valuable thing a woman could hope to be was a beauty.” And each was beautiful, Oona most of all. So lovely she was named the Debutante of the Year by the Café Society. The girls pledged to marry rich, older geniuses because it was “harder for a woman to get her own money any other way than marriage.” One genius who hung out with them was Truman Capote, but since he was gay, he remained just a friend. Another was J.D. Salinger, who developed a serious passion for Oona. Eventually she realized a more serious relationship with him would be a mistake, for he was too much like her father. Jerry Salinger would require total freedom to come and go with no consideration for anyone else. And Oona was “determined to do more, see more, be more.”

The genius Oona discovered is Charlie Chaplin—and she never was put off by the age difference. To her, age was irrelevant because of his character and his kindness:

. . . Charlie had proven to her that a man could be both strong and tender. That a genius could be a genius without tearing the people who loved him to shreds and casting them aside. Indeed, he could be even greater for holding onto his humanity rather than despising it.

Charlie’s devotion healed Oona’s childhood heartbreak and allowed her the freedom “to be only Oona, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else but herself.” And isn’t that what every human yearns for—to drop the mask and to shed other people’s expectations and demands? Just to love and be loved.

Only Oona is such an amazing story. Nearly everyone knows who Charlie Chaplin was. Southern Literary Review is thankful that Tamatha Cain has now shown us the woman who made him happy. Oona O’Neill Chaplin was a woman whose story deserved to be told.

Tamatha Cain

A former musician and bandleader, Tamatha Cain graduated from the University of North Florida with a concentration in Writing for the Entertainment Industry. Only Oona is her second novel, following Song of the Chimney Sweep. She won the 2020 Royal Palm Literary Award for unpublished fiction and first place in The Experience Poetry Competition. This talented writer lives in North Florida. We look forward to reading more of her work.

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