A historical novel dramatizes the life of Oona O’Neill Chaplin, with a focus on her teen years in the 1940s in New York City and Hollywood.
In a prologue set in 1927, Oona, “not-quite-two-years,” reaches for her father, Eugene O’Neill, at a family photo shoot. He brushes her away. The story then jumps to Manhattan and Oona at 14. She lives in Greenwich Village with her divorced, distracted mother, Agnes, who has enrolled Oona in the tony Brearley School. Oona meets Carol Marcus, who attends Dalton, at dance class and is soon mostly residing in the Marcus family’s Park Avenue apartment. Carol introduces her to Gloria Vanderbilt, and the girls become popular among the cafe society set. Amid this attention, Oona yearns for more contact with her father, now living in California with his new wife and gatekeeper, Carlotta. Oona finally is allowed to visit but is allotted little time with the playwright, making the vacation, as she later tells Truman Capote, “terrible for a whole week, and then it was over.” She also helps Carol pursue William Saroyan, although Oona labels him a “jerk” and is wary of her own judgmental beau, J.D. Salinger. She then joins her mother, now living in a Hollywood trailer park, which leads to meeting Charlie Chaplin and, at 18, forging a lasting connection with the actor and director. Cain masterfully presents the emotionally neglected, financially shaky Oona as a striving hero whose focus on appearance is part of her battle armor. In a beautifully rendered sequence, Oona smashes a mirror, then “picked up the jagged pieces one by one…straightened her shoulders and got to work setting everything in order.” While her May-December relationship with Chaplin has had Freudian interpretations, the author offers more complexity here, including how Oona inspired the filmmaker’s masterpiece Limelight. Cain covers Oona’s post-marriage life in the book’s final quarter, but the teen years, perhaps inevitably, are the high point of this engaging novel.
A lively, insightful rendering of a celebrity’s coming-of-age in the Stork Club era.
Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2023
Page Count: 470
Publisher: Orange Blossom Publishing
Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2023