Allison Pearson's I Think I Love You: David Cassidy and the craziness of teenage fans.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 14 2011 7:06 AM

One Weird Cinderella Story

What is Allison Pearson up to with her portrait of David Cassidy fandom?

Allison Pearson's I Think I Love You

In his recent memoir, Keith Richards writes about trying to escape the crazed teenybopper fans who shadowed his every move in the early days of the Stones. You hardly think of Keef as a victim, but he sounds positively outmanned by these girls. "You stood as much chance in a fucking river of piranhas," he recalls. He vividly describes a moment of engagement with the enemy:

I'm trying to get in the car and these bitches are ripping me apart. The problem is if they get their hands on you, they don't know what to do with you. They nearly strangled me with a necklace, one grabbed one side of it, the other grabbed the other, and they're going "Keith, Keith," and meanwhile they're choking me.

That's how it looks from the point of view of the bait. But how does it look from the point of view of the piranha? Allison Pearson tells us in her new book I Think I Love You. Pearson's previous book—the totally charming, blazingly honest, gazillion-selling mommy-wars novel I Don't Know How She Does It—came out almost 10 years ago. Now she's back, with a portrait of fanship. She wants to tell the story of girls who were driven mad by the kind of inchoate, indefinable, and irresistible (not that anyone tried to resist) urges that Richards describes above.

For the first half of the novel, the year is 1974. The place is a small town in Wales. Petra is 13 years old, a skinny, glasses-wearing, cello-playing near-dweeb. Petra and her friend Sharon spend long hours together, poring over David Cassidy magazines, taping David Cassidy posters to the wall, grooming themselves to be the kind of girl David Cassidy might like. Their bible is something called The Essential David Cassidy Magazine:

At 18p it was way more expensive than any other mag. "Dead classy, mind," Sharon said, and so it was with its thick, glossy paper, gorgeous recent pix and a monthly personal letter written by David himself actually from the set of The Partridge Family in Hollywood, America. You couldn't put a price on something like that, could you?

There's no ironic distance. It's a tight frame on a teenage perspective. It's generally lively and well observed, but a bit slow and claustrophobic. We feel the need for some relief.

Pearson provides that relief in alternating chapters. Petra trades off storytelling duties with Bill, a recent college grad who works at—clever conceit alert!—The Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Bill, a rock fan desperate for a paycheck, reluctantly provides the Cassidiana that Petra and Sharon lap up. The precious letters from David are actually from Bill. His perspective on the fans: "They're like peasants in 1321. You give them a bit of dead badger skull and tell them it's the funny bone of the Blessed Virgin Mary and they fall down in a dead faint and give you everything they own, including the cow."

Both Petra and Bill are anticipating (she joyfully, he grimly) David Cassidy's upcoming visit to White City stadium in London. To a certain cohort in the U.K., these words might bring back bad memories. At White City 1974, a girl was trampled to death at the penultimate concert on David Cassidy's farewell tour. For the general populace, it's hardly a date that lives in infamy, and I can't quite tell if Pearson was banking on readers' familiarity with this dark bit of pop history. Either way, she gives no foreshadowing of the grimness of the event, which sits strangely alongside the semicomic (if not exactly funny) tone of the book.

White City provides the climax of the first half of the book. I won't give away the drama, but there's a bit of by-play where Bill finds one of Petra's shoes, abandoned on the stadium floor. And then we leap ahead to 1998. I have no idea why 1998, but there we are. Petra is almost 40, a mom, a music therapist, a Londoner. Just as her marriage is ending, her mother dies, and she returns to Wales to clear out their old house. Rummaging around in a wardrobe, she discovers that long ago, unbeknownst to her, she and Sharon won a contest to meet David Cassidy. Her mother had hidden the letter announcing their prize.

Here the book, never strong on plot, starts to really unravel. Through a series of events that is too wearying and ridiculous for me to recount here, Petra reconnects with Bill, now the head of a group of popular magazines, and Petra and Sharon and Bill head to Las Vegas. Petra and Bill fall in love, and—spoiler ahead—all live happily ever after.

I Think I Love You is meant to be a Cinderella story, right down to the shoe Bill found all those years ago. But it's so weakly organized and paced, I lost interest in the romantic payoff. Not only that, but on the most rudimentary terms of juicy women's fiction, the book doesn't deliver. To wit: When they're about to be swept off on their Las Vegas adventure, Petra and Sharon get treated to a makeover. But we never hear how it turns out. In women's fiction this is a crime of the highest order. Does their hair look better? Worse? What about their lip gloss? Is it, you know, shiny? If you're going to introduce a makeover, you must tell us how it turns out. It's like Chekhov's gun going off by the final act—simply necessary once introduced.

Nothing, in fact, goes off by the final act. Bill and Petra's love affair; Petra and Sharon's friendship; Petra's newfound confidence—all of it seems jumped-up, inauthentic, and worst of all, pallid. The made-under makeover is emblematic: You get the feeling that Pearson somehow thought she was above delivering the satisfactions of a mere romance. And yet a romance—albeit one deeply imbued with 1970s nostalgia—is exactly what she set out to write. I don't need Pearson to write I Don't Know How She Does It all over again. But she might've written this particular book, the book she set out to write, with a bit more conviction.

The most interesting thing about I Think I Love You is the part where Keith Richards gets mobbed by fans. Wait. That was another book. I guess, then, the most interesting thing about this book is when David Cassidy describes being mobbed by fans—a less colorful account than Richards', admittedly. This does not come in the course of the novel, but in an afterword that includes an interview Pearson did with Cassidy a few years back.

Asked what the young girls wanted from him all those years ago, Cassidy answers: "Well, I think they wanted to take a piece of me home so they could have it next to their bed or something. Like a scalp on their wall." This book will do very well with nostalgic David Cassidy fans. It will be another bit of him to hang on the wall. And they are most welcome to it.

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Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.