I Don't Know How She Does It

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
(Knopf, $24.95, PG) ISBN 978-1-4000-4235-7
Today’s adolescent girls may swoon over Justin Bieber, but for those of us who grew up in the early 1970s, the teen heartthrob of choice was David Cassidy. Allison Pearson, in her follow up to 2003’s bestselling I Don’t Know How She Does It, has written a brilliant, painfully accurate portrayal of an adolescent girl caught up in the pop star worship phenomenon. Unfortunately, these scenes comprise only half of the novel, and the story falters when we follow the heroine into her adult life.

David Cassidy may have millions of adoring fans around the world, but 13 year old Petra Williams is sure that, secretly, he is singing directly to her. She knows him better than anyone else does – including the important things like his favorite color, his astrological sign, and the name of his first dog. Petra feels that she is the only person who can hear the loneliness that is hidden in David’s song lyrics – the loneliness she can identify with as the only child of a strict, critical mother and a loving but weak father.

Dreaming about David is definitely preferable to pondering her social status as the insecure hanger-on to the popular crowd in her South Wales town. So when Petra and her best friend Sharon learn that David is performing in London and that an accompanying contest will allow a pair of lucky girls to win a trip to Los Angeles to meet with him on the set of The Partridge Family, there’s no question that Petra will lie to her parents to attend the concert and use all of her A-level David Cassidy knowledge to ace the “Ultimate David Cassidy Quiz.”

Meanwhile in London, unbeknownst to Petra, a young college graduate toils in obscurity at The Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Bill Finn is too embarrassed to tell his girlfriend that he is using his English degree to write articles about the top qualities David looks for in a girlfriend instead of covering Zeppelin and the Stones, but it’s a living, and in a way Bill feels a strange connection to the American pop singer as he writes letters on David’s behalf to the teenagers who eat up every fake word.

Petra and Bill end up at the fateful concert, but the mass hysteria leads to a tragedy that changes both of their lives. The David Cassidy phenomenon dies shortly thereafter. More than 20 years later, Petra discovers a letter hidden in her late mother’s belongings indicating that she and Sharon had indeed won the David Cassidy contest. Recently divorced and struggling to parent her own 13 year old daughter, Petra reaches back into her past and makes some old connections, as well as surprising new ones, that lead to an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas to meet her former heartthrob.

The first half of I Think I Love You is a 5-heart read. Pearson nails down perfectly the way in which some teenage girls project all of their loneliness and scary new sexual feelings onto a safe teen idol crush, including the irrational belief that a world-famous pop star could fall in love with an ordinary 13 year old girl. Her understanding of female adolescent relationship dynamics is evident in her depiction of Petra’s interactions with the school’s Queen Bee, who allows Petra to remain on the fringes of the in-crowd as long as she doesn’t pose a threat to her reign.

Unfortunately, the second half of the book is a let-down. There’s too much ground to cover in too few pages, and although Petra gamely recounts her disastrous marriage and her rewarding career as a music therapist, I never felt like I caught up with her as an adult character. The inevitable pairing off of the two protagonists, Petra and Bill, is criminally understated and needed more weight to be satisfying. The final encounter with David Cassidy takes place offstage, although more important than the meeting itself is Petra’s realization that the screaming teenager she once was is still a part of the older but wiser woman she has become.

The book’s afterword includes the transcript of a 2004 interview that Pearson conducted with Cassidy for the Daily Telegraph. Although she long ago moved past her crush, Pearson enjoyed the experience, reporting that “No girl could ask for a better teen idol.” Whether your bedroom walls were papered with posters of Donny Osmond, Bobby Sherman, Michael Jackson, or upstarts like New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, you will likely identify with this funny, wistful novel.

--Susan Scribner

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