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Allison Pearson's 'I Think I Love You': A celebrity crush turns star-crossed

By Elinor Lipman
Friday, February 25, 2011; 6:52 PM

It is 1974, and 13-year-old Petra Williams of South Wales is worshipfully in love with far-off pop idol David Cassidy. Along with her kindest friend, Sharon, beneath posters of their androgynous heartthrob, they devour every adjective, every investigative nugget (favourite colour: brown; favourite qualities in future wife: no flannel pyjamas), as reported in the Essential David Cassidy Magazine.

Petra is not a silly teen. She plays the cello and dresses modestly under the constraints imposed by a dragon of a German mother from whom all crushes, puerile friends and popular music must be hidden. Even with a sweet, docile dad on site, it is not a happy life. Though smarter and more sympathetic than anyone else in her circle, Petra craves approval and popularity, requiring her to negotiate the narrow straits between mean girls and her mother's disdain for almost everything.

Petra explains, "To improve your image, you made yourself more stupid and less kind. . . . Now among friends, you were often lonelier than you had been before. . . . The only thing that made it bearable was reading the David mags I kept under the floorboard by my bed and listening to the Top 40 in a cave beneath the sheets."

Allison Pearson's second novel, after her best-selling "I Don't Know How She Does It," depends heavily on readers' identifying with celebrity infatuations. David Cassidy as a thematic touchstone is a brave narrative undertaking, and readers with a history of similar intensities will be at a distinct advantage. Pearson renders teenagedom with authenticity and poignancy. Thus, when the story stalls, it's not the fault of the writing, but of the selecting. There is much reported - past, present and future - but not all of it is helpful to the novel's momentum.

Chapters alternate between Petra's story and that of an unhappy journalist, Bill Finn, 11 months out of university, whose new job is - to his mortification - ghostwriting, i.e., fabricating, all that is in the mind and heart of David Cassidy for the fans. Petra and Bill cross paths at a mobbed Cassidy concert, which turns into a literal crush of humanity. (True story: On May 26, 1974, hundreds of Cassidy fans were treated for hysteria or injury, and a 14-year-old died.) To get there, Petra has sneaked away after telling her mother she was taking the train to London to hear Handel's "Messiah." In what later will be seen as fate and kismet, Bill helps the nearly crushed Petra, supplying overdue evidence that he has, contrary to previous dialogue and exposition, a heart.

A very important plot point in Part 1: Cassidy scholars Sharon and Petra devote themselves to researching and answering "The Ultimate David Cassidy Quiz" published in the Essential D.C. mag, in hopes of outscoring the competition. To the winners go a trip to L.A. to meet David Bruce Cassidy himself, sponsored by Bill's magazine. How did Petra and Sharon fare? Time goes by. The topic is dropped, appropriately and effectively, at least for now.

The second half of the novel brings a welcome jump to 1998. Petra is newly divorced and heartbroken, a professional cellist turned musical therapist, mother of a teenage girl. Bill now heads the print empire that acquired his old magazine. Happily, the discovery of a lost letter (its content not to be divulged here) answers the question: What is the arc of our story, and where are we headed?

Lovely writing and acute insights appear throughout "I Think I Love You," but they are outnumbered by scenes that not only don't drive the story forward but also digress from the star-crossedness of Petra's and Bill's fates. There are philosophizings that are on point and philosophizings that are asides. ("With love itself, the true love of legend, the opposite was true; as it grew, you could no longer imagine yourself without it. The love made you.")

What has Petra learned from her Cassidy-immersion phase? " 'You made the aura, not him,' Bill explains. 'That was your job, back in 1974. I did the fake version on the magazine, but you did the real thing. You told a story to yourself, about a boy you all loved, and you did it so brilliantly, with all your heart, that it didn't matter whether it came true. It just felt true.' "

Fond though I am of happy endings, this one could've used a little more elegance and a lot fewer lyrics from Cassidy gold records. ("Dear Petra, How can I be sure, in a world that's constantly changing, where I stand with you.")

For better or for worse, Pearson provides an afterword, a real-life interview from 2004 with Cassidy, then 53. "Fan heaven," she reports. "I realized I could bear just about any kind of awkwardness, embarrassment or disappointment, but I never, ever wanted to feel sorry for the man who once bestrode my world like a colossus in a white catsuit trimmed with silver studs."

A transcript of their Q&A follows. Such moments of fan bliss include, "OK, as I once screamed at you, David Cassidy, it's only fair that you should scream at me." Et cetera, painfully.

Pearson's reportage leads a reader to understand that she proudly shares DNA with Petra, that life offers second chances and that old crushes die hard.

Lipman's latest novel, her ninth, is "The Family Man."

I THINK I LOVE YOU

By Allison Pearson

Knopf. 331 pp. $24.95

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