Author Allison Pearson sings the song of the modern mom

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 11:10 PM

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - Allison Pearson's body sits on the floor of the upstairs office, called the Pink Room for its wallpaper. Her eyes are closed; she is moving her lips and gently swaying from side to side in time with the music, the fabric of her skirt periodically clinging to the carpet, revealing vulnerable swaths of leg. The whole thing is intensely personal; you would almost rather walk in on someone flossing as having this meditative flashback, which appears to border on the religious.

Allison Pearson's mind has gone to a nice place. A feathered haircut place. A place of corduroy and soft, girlish man-voices, and Partridge families, and -

"Wait, here it comes, here's the 'but' - "

'Cause I know. THIS won't. DI-sa-peeeear.


But . . .

Allison Pearson's mind is with David Cassidy.

Nearly a decade after her first novel, "I Don't Know How She Does It," became the millennium's first mommy bible, British author and journalist Pearson has released her long-awaited second work.

"I Think I Love You" is about love. First love. The first, all-consuming, soul-melting love experienced by 13-year-old girls toward the men who live in posters inside their lockers. Love in the time of tweenagers.

The women will love it.

To understand why it is important that Pearson, 50, wrote a second novel, you must first understand what "I Don't Know How She Does It" did. And what it did was help launch the entire genre of mommy lit. (Think Bridget Jones - with babies!) What it did was usher in the decade of the self-deprecating online parenting forums that trade in one-upmanship of incompetence, the endless confessions regarding who forgot which peanut-free food for which classroom party. (But if everyone's a bad mom, is anyone?)

"I Don't Know How She Does It" - whose characters originated in one of Pearson's columns for London's Daily Mail - featured the slapstick misadventures of hedge-fund manager Kate Reddy as she teetered between work and home life. In a signature scene, she skulks in her kitchen in the middle of the night, "distressing" a store-bought pie so the other moms will think it is homemade.

The book depicted an idyllic, hand-washed state of overwhelmed - its characters had nannies and housecleaners and still didn't know how to do it. But to a certain class of women, the novel so encapsulated the state of parenthood that only recently has the discussion been hijacked, by a dictatorial Yale professor with child-bot piano prodigies whose main message seems to be that the only way to do it all is to be completely psychotic. Headless-chicken mom, meet Tiger Mom.

"The week I wrote that first column, I felt like I had opened a door to a parallel world," Pearson says of the floods of letters she received from exhausted moms. "I thought, 'Oh, so there's where we've been carrying this weight.' "

She lives in an airy house in Cambridge with her husband, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, their two children and assorted pets. On this particular afternoon, Lane is away, having taken their teenage daughter, Evie, to an ear, nose and throat specialist in London. He'll return just in time to debrief his wife on the outcome, then go watch their son, Thomas, sing in the church choir. Pearson is preparing for a flight to New York, where "I Don't Know How She Does It" is currently being made into a movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

"I bought the book when it came out and I loved it," says screenwriter and producer Aline McKenna, who at the time had a toddler, a baby bump and a demanding career. McKenna, whose credits include "27 Dresses" and "The Devil Wears Prada," adapted "I Don't Know How She Does It" for the screen.

"In my mind" says McKenna, "it's the defining book on modern motherhood."

"I Think I Love You" might be a defining book on what it means to be 13.

David Cassidy is on the phone.

David Cassidy is happily gabbing away about "I Think I Love You," which he is pretty sure he loves.

"It was very clever and insightful," he says, after apologizing for his cold. "It's not the storyline that's insightful, but the way she weaves the story and the characters - and I'm basically just the cog in the middle of the wheel. I just happen to be that guy." Cassidy realizes that women's ages can be accurately evaluated, like rings on a tree stump, by who they loved at 13. Jordan Knight? Justin Bieber?

In the new book, "that guy" is the obsession of Petra, a teen living in Wales in the 1970s. Her months are measured by the arrival of the Essential David Cassidy magazine, which she believes is penned by Cassidy himself but is actually the product of Bill, an embittered journalist.

At night Petra sleeps on her back, in case David drops by for a kiss. She wears her favorite clothes when she watches "The Partridge Family," in case David can see her from the screen.

"There's an element of [a celebrity crush] being a dress rehearsal for love," Pearson says. She sits among piles of David Cassidy memorabilia - photos, album covers, magazines - that she tracked down on eBay for research ("It looked like the lair of a serial killer," she says of the writing environment). "It's like a release of some pre-sexual feeling." When Pearson was a teenager, she pored over pictures of Cassidy, "but if he had climbed out of one of those posters, I would have been mortified."

Like the virginal Edward Cullen, like the androgynous, pre-creepy Michael Jackson, the untouchable celebrity crushes of young girls are a chance to love with little risk, allowing obsession with wild abandon. "We are great narrators of our own romantic history," Pearson says, and what she means is that the love stories that women tell themselves as girls are the ones that will guide their notions of love for the rest of their lives.

"You talked to David Cassidy?" Pearson exclaims. "What did he saaaay?"

The Petras of the world grow up to be the Kate Reddys of the world, perhaps, measuring themselves against the impossible standards set for today's mothers, and chastising themselves for being unable to achieve perfection, which they know exists because they've seen it before. It used to hang on their bedroom walls.

People like to ask Pearson which characters represent her, assuming that Kate is Allison and Kate's husband is Anthony, and the man Kate begins a flirtation with is . . . (He's nobody. But Pierce Brosnan will play him in the film!)

In reality, Pearson says, all of her own personality traits "get shuffled like a deck of cards" and dispersed among her characters. "I live with someone who truly considers me an equal," she says of her marriage. "He's cleverer than me, but he treats me like an equal." But in any household where two adults are working and raising children, "there is going to be strain around the edges."

After the release of "I Don't Know How She Does It," Pearson found herself struggling to manage her own life.

The success of the book was greater than she'd expected, but becoming the unofficial pope for the Church of the Harried Mom affected her life in ways she hadn't anticipated. She was called on for interviews, speaking engagements, panels. While trying to balance the fame with her regular work responsibilities, she fell further and further behind writing "I Think I Love You" - ultimately prompting Miramax, which had preliminarily bought the rights, to sue her for nondelivery. Her mother had two heart attacks.

Pearson found herself spending endless nights on a highway, under a sky that always seemed to be raining, either away from her children or away from her mother or away from work, all of which needed her. She was exhausted. The bridge outside the car window looked like it would be easy to casually drift off of. She was unable to admit anything was wrong.

"I made the mistake of thinking that writing 'I Don't Know How She Does It' had inoculated me," Pearson says, though she didn't recognize her denial at the time. "Like, 'No, I'm not the crazy woman. I wrote a book about crazy women.' "

For her to confess her despair might have been akin to admitting surrender in front of all of the women who had canonized her message.

"Allison likes to do things right," says Miranda Richards, the friend of Pearson's whose job was the inspiration for Kate Reddy's workplace (the two met when both arrived embarrassingly late to their children's nativity play). "She's honest, and true, and willing as the day is long . . . She wouldn't have wanted to let anyone down."

Finally, Pearson found herself sitting in a psychiatrist's office, taking a quiz meant to assess for signs of clinical depression, and realizing that she could "strongly identify" with nearly every answer.

Her doctor prescribed, in part, detoxification. She left her column, she slowed down on writing the book; activities she once squeezed into a few minutes - grocery shopping, cooking - she was pleased to accomplish at all.

"I would say I'm 70 percent better now," she says. "But with depression, you're always taking your mental temperature. You're watchful. You're living in fear" that it could return.

The domesticity she's achieved - right now the sound of Evie practicing the piano drifts up the stairs - seems pleasantly cluttered, not overwhelmingly chaotic.

Maybe women like Kate Reddy grow up to be women like Pearson. Mostly balanced. Harried by their own choosing.

If she ever writes another book, she thinks it will be about women of this so-called sandwich generation, the ones trapped between the kids still at home and the parents who now need caretakers.

You could see how this could also be made into a movie. Starring Rita Wilson, maybe. Or Alfre Woodard.

It would be a trilogy of modern womanhood. Not the kind with heroines you cheer for, but the kind with heroines you ruefully smile at in recognition, all the while questioning the society that made the stereotypes recognizable.

The women will love it.

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